The hottest, most far-reaching story in college athletics isn't taking place on a basketball court or football field.
It's taking place in a courtroom.
In July 2009, former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon sued the NCAA, its licensing company and EA Sports for using his likeness in a video game without permission or compensation. The case has since been consolidated with similar suits, and the plaintiffs are now seeking a 50% share of the NCAA's television revenues for current and former student-athletes.
Naturally, colleges think this is a terrible idea, and several presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors were enlisted to legally declare their support for the NCAA in the case against O'Bannon et al.
Enter Fresno State President John Welty, who serves on the NCAA's board of directors.
In a seven-page declaration filed March 14 in U.S. District Court of Northern California, Welty stated that Fresno State "absolutely depends" on those TV revenues (about $2.4 million annually) to fund its athletic program. And if legally forced to share that money with football and men's basketball players, he implied the university may have to drop football.
"It is a possibility that Fresno State ... might cease playing Division I football or Football Bowl Subdivision sports entirely," Welty stated. "It may very well be the case that Fresno State would eliminate football rather than be forced to eliminate the balance of its athletics programs to keep football."
Is a lot of this just posturing? Of course it is. But it's interesting that Welty decided to leap into the fray, especially when he's a couple of months from retirement.
Welty isn't fighting the NCAA's legal skirmish on his own.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Texas athletic directors DeLoss Dodds and Chris Plonsky and others also filed public declarations.
Delany raised the most eyebrows by stating the Big Ten, if forced to share television revenues with football and men's basketball players, may opt to de-emphasize athletics and pursue a Division III, non-scholarship model.
Yeah, sure. I'd like to hear Delany explain to a roomful of Ohio State fans why the Buckeyes are scheduling football games against Mount Union and Wisconsin-Oshkosh. (I'd also like to hear him explain to Mrs. Delany why he's suddenly only taking home a fraction of his $1.6 million salary.)
The truth is that the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Big 12 and ACC have created a system that fills their coffers (the Big Ten distributed $284 million to each of its 12 schools in 2012) and lets them build extravagant facilities while paying fat salaries to coaches, athletic directors and conference officials.
At one time, it was fair to say that football and men's basketball players at major-conference programs were fairly compensated by the value of their scholarships.
But those days have long passed.
The irony here is that unlike Delany, Welty isn't bluffing. Fresno State can hardly afford the athletic programs it has now. But if you want a seat at the big boy table, you have to abide by their rules. And sometimes that means playing along with the lawyers.
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