Ed O'Bannon takes stand in trial

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Friday, June 13, 2014

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon was holding his own on the witness stand in his lawsuit against the NCAA, sticking to the view that college players should be paid because their athletic abilities are the main reason they are in school to begin with.

Then he took it a step further. If Little Leaguers bring in money for television networks in their games, maybe they should be paid, too.

The idea of 12-year-olds getting paychecks for anything other than mowing a neighbor's lawn seems a bit preposterous. But O'Bannon's point is at the heart of the trial unfolding in California: Athletics, even at the most amateur level, are worth big bucks.

In a week of testimony in the trial that could redefine how college athletics operate, the amount of money generated by the players performance added up, bit by bit.

"The big thing to understand is how much is being brought in," O'Bannon said. "When the pie that is brought in is huge, I think it's big enough for everyone to share a piece of that pie."

College athletes see the billions of dollars brought in by television contracts that seem to multiply every year. They see their coaches getting rich, and everyone employed by their schools living well. And they try to understand just what so-called "amateurism" really means when everyone is making money except the players themselves.

Just how big is that pie? Huge, and about to get much bigger as new television contracts are signed and new networks are formed to show college sports.

According to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education and compiled by O'Bannon's lawyers, Division I basketball schools and FBS football programs took in $4.5 billion in revenue in the 2012-13 school year. Of that, $3.5 billion was generated by the 69 schools that were in the former Bowl Championship Series conferences.

Sports economist Daniel Rascher of the University of San Francisco testified on behalf of the plaintiffs seeking payment for the use of their names and images that 65 of those schools had profitable football programs, with a net total profit of $1.3 billion on revenue of $2.7 billion. The University of Texas alone made $81 million on its football program on revenue of $109 million, and Rascher said his analysis showed profits are even higher than listed, largely because donations to programs aren't allocated to specific sports.

"These schools are highly profitable, and their revenues are continuing to grow at a fast pace," Rascher said. "They're even more profitable than on paper because of the way they do their books."

Those profits will almost surely increase with huge new television contracts that lawyers for the NCAA, major conferences and television networks fought hard in court to keep under wraps.

They were largely successful, getting U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to agree to redact large parts of the NCAA contract for the men's basketball tournament and other conference contracts. Wilken agreed with attorneys for networks, conferences and the NCAA that they would be at a competitive disadvantage if others knew their business.

The deals that are publicly known, though, are whoppers. The NCAA pact by itself is worth an average of $770 million a year, while ESPN will soon pay $470 million a year for the College Football Playoff. The conferences themselves have TV deals that bring big schools more than $20 million a year, and some think Southeastern Conference schools will pocket $40 million each year when a new SEC network is in full operation.

Even though the numbers seem to be growing exponentially, colleges have been grappling with the issue for a long time. In 1921, Union College President C.A. Richmond deplored "the high cost of athletic victories," saying the rush to bigger programs was "like the contest in dreadnoughts" before World War I.

That came a decade after a committee of the fledgling NCAA first proposed rules on payments being made to players. The committee's report in 1911 defined an amateur as "one who enters and takes part in athletic contests purely in obedience to the play impulses or for the satisfaction of purely play motives and for the exercise, training and social pleasures" derived from sports.

In court this week there were other attempts to define amateurism, which the NCAA claims is essential to the core of college sports. The NCAA has vowed to fight the suit brought by O'Bannon and 19 others all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, saying paying players to play goes against the core principles that guide college sports.

A former president of CBS Sports agreed, saying fans are attracted to college sports because athletes play only for the love of the game.

"If we go down the road of paying the players substantial funds I think there would be a sense we're just developing a cadre of hired guns who will have no link to the colleges other than showing up for practice and games," Neal Pilson said.

In a surprise twist, the NCAA will soon indirectly be playing some players itself after agreeing on the eve of the trial to a $20 million settlement stemming from an ill-fated decision to license video games featuring the likenesses of college players. Some of that money, the NCAA acknowledged, will go to current athletes, something technically in violation of the organization's own rules.

As for the Little Leaguers, no one is arguing their case -- yet. ESPN pays millions to broadcast the Little League World Series. Unlike the NCAA, though, there is nothing in Little League regulations about players getting extra benefits, like an ice cream party after the game by the team sponsor. But even O'Bannon himself admits he might have gone a little too far in suggesting that children get paid.

"There will be things I say and do that not everyone will agree with, like the Little League thing," he said. "But there are certain things you have to say to get your point across."