“Are you excited for March Madness?” Everyone knows I’m a basketball fan, so I get asked this question a lot this time of year. My answer is usually, “I’m much more excited for the NBA playoffs.”
Now, I understand the Madness. It’s a brilliantly designed one-and-done two-week tournament that’s perfect for casual fans. But the notion of a student-athlete is troublesome — and society would be better off just watching the pros.
The term “student-athlete” conjures up an image of the National Honor Society student who played football and basketball in my high school class and went on to Princeton. Those who are fortunate enough to experience the tournament can tell their grandkids about it.
“I like feeling that connection to a place where I spent a great four years of my life,” said 41-year-old Syracuse alumni Joe Williams. “I like seeing the ‘cutaway’ shots of the campus during commercials and knowing the players and fans are walking around the same places I did 20 years ago.”
But in actuality, “student-athlete” was coined by the first NCAA commissioner, Walter Byers, in the 1950s to “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players,” according to sports economist Andrew Zimbalist.
In 1955, Colorado football player Ray Dennison (who played for Fort Lewis A&M) fractured his skull as he tackled the kick returner. He died 30 hours later. His widow, Billie, filed for death benefits, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that she was not entitled to death benefits because he was a “student-athlete” and not a college employee. Ever since, colleges using the “student-athlete” have proved the term to be valuable in providing victories in liability cases.
There seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel in 2009, when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, the 1995 College Player of the Year, discovered that his friend’s son had a copy of the video game “EA Sports NCAA Basketball 09” with a UCLA player based on him. It had everything down to his likeness — uniform number, skin tone and playing style — except his actual name. Unlike the professional counterparts featured in “NBA Live” and “NBA 2K,” neither O’Bannon nor any other NCAA player created were receiving compensation. (Though game companies don’t pay players directly, the companies get the rights from the NBA to use the players’ names and likenesses. The NBA then pays the players through those rights as part of media income.)
With the help of former sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro (best known for signing Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal), O’Bannon filed suit against the NCAA, and in 2014, Judge Claudia Wilken of U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., ruled in favor of O’Bannon, declaring that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust laws. It allowed for the top 10 conferences in football and all Division 1 basketball to be provided with trust funds accessible to players after graduation.
Victory was practically declared: “It’s a remarkable step forward for decency for college athletes,” said William Isaacson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
But hold off on the big Gatorade cooler. In the summer of 2015, the three-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit granted the NCAA a stay on the ruling, which delayed the process that would have started granting student-athletes the trusts. This is based on the NCAA argument that the ruling would “professionalize its amateur athletes and hurt its business model.”
O’Bannon’s lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to hear their case, but there’s no guarantee that anything will change. Separately, there’s a case led by lawyer Jeffrey Kessler to take it a step further and remove the rules that prevent any kind of compensation for the athletes. So while progress is being made, there’s still a long road ahead to getting the players paid.
If I’m making you feel slightly guilty while you’re monitoring your bracket, drinking Bud Light out of a red Solo cup and listening to Dick Vitale screaming in your ear, I would suggest watching an organization that delivers a superior on-court product and fairly compensated contractors.
Ladies and gentlemen, the National Basketball Association.
This has been a remarkable NBA season. The Golden State Warriors are attempting to break the Michael Jordan-led 1995-96 Chicago Bulls regular season record of 72-10.
Steph Curry, the Warriors’ point guard, is shooting 3-pointers at an unprecedented rate. For the third season in a row, he has broken his own record and shoots from longer distances — many off the dribble. Typically, the best 3-point shooters, like Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, need to run through multiple screens to get their open looks. Not Curry. In some circles, Curry is considered the best player in the league over LeBron James.
Speaking of, over in Cleveland, James’s Cavaliers have been an awkward fit of superstars ever since his return last summer. But he remains as dominant as ever, and his leadership skills are questioned. He passive-aggressively calls out teammates via social media and is essentially a de facto general manager. They’re still leading the East, but with so many question marks that the drama of this team is better than most reality TV shows.
Only in the NBA does the on-the-court action match the off-the-court drama, and there are going to be a lot more shining moments during the NBA playoffs.
And at least you’ll know that these players get fair pay.
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