There is nothing quite like March Madness - not for the sports fan's pulse, and not for the NCAA's financial ledger. The NCAA's television deal with CBS, signed in 2002, is worth $6 billion over 11 years, and, when you add up all the money raised from the tournament - including TV rights, tickets, merchandising and the like - it accounts for an astounding 96% of the college athletic association's annual revenue.
Of course, the so-called amateur players - without whose labor not one dime would be raised - don't see a penny above and beyond the scholarships they may be getting to attend school. Until now.
If former UCLA basketball star and 1995 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Ed O'Bannon has anything to say about it, reality is in for a rude awakening. If you really care about college ball - and the kids who play it - you should be rooting for O'Bannon just as you cheer on your alma mater.
First, a quick trip down memory lane: O'Bannon was an outstanding, physically gifted player who gave his knees to college basketball only to fizzle out in the pros. He helped restore UCLA to glory, saw kids wearing his powder-blue and gold jersey, helped generate millions for a school that revolves around hoops - and didn't see a cent of it.
And he is now the lead plaintiff in a steadily advancing lawsuit to force the NCAA to pay royalties to its former players.
Here's how it currently works: Right now, the NCAA can license the images, uniforms and even the computer likenesses of anyone who ever played under its umbrella. So O'Bannon and his teammates can be featured in, say, a video game that makes millions - without getting a cut. It's a business that generates $4 billion annually.
O'Bannon was moved to act after seeing the child of a friend playing a video game - as O'Bannon himself.
"They literally played me on a video game," O'Bannon told Yahoo! Sports last summer. "You could play the '95 Bruins. It didn't have my name, but it had my number, left-handed, it looked like me. It was everything but the name."
Now O'Bannon is the tip on the spear to make sure that players don't get the shaft.
There are certainly legitimate debates about whether full tuition constitutes enough payment for any student athlete while the player is in school. Personally, I think that players should get a portion of the revenue they produce, or at least have their education guaranteed if they leave school early or lose their scholarship because of injury.
But wherever you fall on this question, the idea of the NCAA - which officially is a nonprofit - marketing the images of former players for commercial concerns without sharing the revenue ought to be considered rank piracy. There is no equivalent instance where such a thing would be considered acceptable. Imagine if I started to market "Angelina Jolie Ranchers" without asking the actress for permission or giving her any of the proceeds.
On a more serious note, even in the United States Army, this nonsense is not allowed. When the Pentagon wanted to use the late Pat Tillman in recruitment ads, they couldn't do it.
In short, the rights for others to exploit or profit from our personhood are protected - unless you happen to be under the auspices of the NCAA.
Fortunately, California Federal Judge Claudia Wilken denied the NCAA's request to dismiss the suit this month and stated that O'Bannon's case can move forward.
If nothing else, this opens a period of discovery where the NCAA's financial books, contracts and business deals are now fully open to scrutiny. The NCAA now has to point flashlights in all of its shadowy corners.
Anyone who cares about basic justice for athletes should stand with Ed O'Bannon in his efforts. He has lived the unfairness of this system. This is no cautionary tale. O'Bannon went back to get his degree and today has a happy family life and sells cars in Las Vegas. That's what makes O'Bannon, and this case, so compelling. It's not about the money. It's about what's right. Just something to think about before we descend into the Madness of March.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to email@example.com.
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