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O'Bannon and Keller and the NCAA

Sam Keller Nebraska Quarterback looking downfield
Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

Who owns a college athlete’s name, image and likeness (NIL)?

As I sit down to write today’s column, a great many thoughts and memories filter through my mind. Over the years, I have written many columns about how hypocritical the NCAA in its dealing with treatment of so-called “scholar” athletes.

I find it is unconscionable to me, that so many athletes who are theoretically brought to school basically as an athlete and not a student are exploited while in school for the benefit of the school making lots of money based on their talent.

I have always felt it should be called what it really is, “a job” and after their career in college is over, most will have to take on ordinary everyday chores. It used to be: go to school, spend four years, learn skills that will carry you through the rest of your life.

Today, in many cases it’s “play football for me and if you can’t pass your tests, I’ll get you a tutor and in fact, if your learning skills are real bad, the tutor might even write your Essays”.

I ask, “How is he prepared to cope when there are no more free drinks at the bar, nor pretty girls to flatter him”. The answer, very simple is: He can’t!
Not only that, there are some schools who know they will only have an athlete for freshman year… It’s called “one and done”. That is the shame of the NCAA’s Hypocrisy.

Now, what is the solution? Well, part of it might be answered in what is being debated today and probably for weeks to come in an Oakland, California Courtroom.
It is a class action suit being brought about by Ed O’Bannon.

Ed, was an exceptional Collegiate Basketball Player at UCLA and had a solid career as a Pro. He is in the forefront of a class action suit claiming the NCAA and companies that use the name, image, or likeness (NIL) of a collegiate athlete, should reimburse that athlete.

When Ed won the John Wooden Award as the College Player of the Year (1994-95), along with the Vandeweghes, father and son, I had the pleasure of sitting with Ed that day at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

Also, Sam Keller in the forefront of another suit is the son of one of my closest friends, Mike Keller. Mike himself was All-American at Michigan who enjoyed a great career with the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears. I have followed Sam since grade school.

The Sam Keller Class Action was settled recently and the NCAA agreed to pay $20 million. I called Mike to congratulate Sam and found out that in “trickle-down” economics, each member of the class action might possibly receive between $5,000 and $10,000. To me, it seems out of proportion to what one’s NIL (name, image, likeness) is worth.

Not only that, in many instances when a coach discovers he has got an exceptional athlete, be he a freshman, or upper classman, the coach will ride the kid’s talents all the way to a salary larger in many cases than even the most renowned professor at the same school.

In addition, based on the kid’s talents the coach might realize multiple endorsement deals as well as TV fees.
Meanwhile, the athlete who stands to get injured, lose his scholarship as well, gets no NIL compensation.

My friend and on occasion, associate Neal Pilson, former CBS Sports President, testifying as an expert witness for the NCAA said that he felt that college sports would lose public support if the athletes were paid. Furthermore, he testified he never heard, when negotiating for billions of dollars for Broadcast Rights, or was aware of any specific discussion regarding the rights of individual athletes.

That’s to be expected! Since, when a young athlete enters college, he must sign a standard “grant-in-aid” release. This release is decades old and has never been amended to cope with the times and the new sources of revenue. It outlines the prohibitions that a young athlete must abide by.

Times have dramatically changed with the world of Social Media. Just like the United States Constitution, the “Grant-in-Aid” document should be a living document.

While on the stand, Neal was shown a 2010 email from former NCAA policy advisor Wally Renfro to incoming President Mark Emmert that wrestled with the rising perception of “commercial exploitation” by NCAA, which is 108 years old.

In the email Renfro wrote,” it’s a fairness issue and along with the notion that athletes are students is the great hypocrisy of intercollegiate athletics”.

On the other hand, the Plaintiffs’ Consultant, Edwin Dresser, formerly the NBA head of broadcasting, expressed an opposite view from Neal Pilson.

Two learned and talented men have taken the stand for opposite sides of the argument. This is a case worth watching. It will definitely change the way we look at College Sports.

It will be interesting to follow in the weeks to come.