Monday, May 19, 2014

Change on the Way for NCAA Sports

If there was any consensus among the all star panel of lawyers gathered to discus "the evolving legal landscape of college athletics" at the Sports Lawyers Association(SLA) Annual Conference in Chicago last week it was that the collegiate sports system will change so that it "reflects the 21st century," said Matt Mitten, professor of law at Marquette and director of the National Sports Law Institute. How much change and what those changes will be is the unanswered question.

A flurry of recent court cases have challenged various financial aspects of the way the NCAA and the member schools run the franchise.  From labeling the NCAA as a cartel, alleging restraint of trade, pushing for unionization of athletes, to demanding "image\publicity rights," the increased  commercialization of college sports has generated a demand by the athletes for a share of the wealth. While all of this has no major effect yet for collegiate cross country or track and field athletes, the decisions made in these cases could have a broad impact on all NCAA sports programs.

"Amateurism is a fiction that we operate under," said Marc Isenberg, author of the Money Players blog.  The advent of the Internet and sports channels such as ESPN or the Big Ten Network has had a massive impact on the revenue streams for college athletics, as well as the demand for "product."  To put it in context, back in the 1960s when television was in its infancy there were only the three major networks--ABC, NBC, and CBS.  The professional sports were getting nowhere near the rights fees for their products that they are now, and track & field, because of it's premium status in the Olympic Games, exploited the network's need for sports products by negotiating  deals for inclusion in their new programming. Shows, such as ABC's Wide World of Sports, which filled their broadcast schedule with events, such as the Penn Relays, and a series of meets pitting the US vs the Soviet Union in the midst of the height of the Cold War.

Today there is a glut of sports from collegiate to Olympics and beyond generating revenue for themselves and the various media outlets.  There are independent operations, such as FloTrack and Runnerspace, attempting to develop a viable financial product on the web. Track's US governing body, USATF, launched USATF.TV, a cooperative venture with Runnerspace to increase audience awareness of their product, the sports they govern.

If the athletes unionize, become classified as employees, these revenue streams could potentially be altered or disrupted.  In some cases it might cause colleges and universities to reevaluate their athletics programs, which already are linked more to professional sports than the NCAA concept of having a "clear line of demarcation between professional and collegiate sports."  Such a move would have a variety of effects from scholarships potentially  becoming classified as income and subject to being taxed.  The athletic scholarships would probably also include clauses to cover issues, such as income from "image rights."  Colleges would push for assigning those rights to the school while athletes might want a "cut" of the revenue that trades on their own commercial value.

Football and basketball, the major income generators among NCAA sports, would be impacted the most by whatever changes might occur. Much of the speculation regarding the impact of a shift to unionizing the athletes centers on the possibility of the "Super Division I" the "Power Five" football programs would form their own league or organization that would could conceivably create new "revenue sharing" agreements between schools and athletes.

Lost in the discussions about the commercial aspects of such changes is the situation that has evolved as college sports have followed more of a business model than that of an institution with the primary goal to provide education to its students.  Backed by the statistics that clearly demonstrate how few collegiate athletes move on to careers as professional athletes, the incentives for these athletes to get an education are undersold, says Mitten.  Still a higher percentage of student athletes get degrees than the general population of non-athlete students.

There should be incentives for athletes to get an education, says Mitten, rather than promotion of the dream of a pro career.  "Give athletes a legitimate interpretation into their futures," said Isenberg.  "Some recognize that the system is broke."  Basketball player Elden Campbell, who did make it to the NBA, summed it up like this: "No, I didn't earn my degree, but they gave me one anyway."

Executive VP and chief legal officer for the NCAA, Donald Remy, reiterated the view of the panel that change was coming, but as moderator Warren Zola, the Executive Director of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College and executive editor of the Sports Law Blog, noted the change has not been and is unlikely to be rapid, more of a gradual process that he could see signs of beginning back in the mid 1980s.

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson joked prior to directing a question to Remy that Remy was a brave man to come before an audience comprised of 800 lawyers at this time in NCAA history.  Then he added that he was going to continue the "piling on" of barbs and questions about the need for change and the snail's pace it is taking.  Such is the reality of the situation that radical changes that might take this change process along lines that are perceived by those in major college sports to threaten the financial colossus that has been created will be met by resistance.  Mitten noted that radical changes would, most likely, prompt lobbying of Congress to pass legislation that could either preserve elements of the present system or alter provisions of proposed revisions to the system to maintain the economic engine of current college sport.

To echo Bob Dylan, the times they are a changin.  Just not with drastic alterations or moving very fast.

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