The O’Bannon Case: A Judge Explains How The Law Requires An Unethical and Corrupt Practice To Be Fair….But It’s Still Unethical and Corrupt


Now that a federal judge has declared the elite student-athletes at big time sports colleges to be what they are…paid mercenaries…and the sports programs at such institutions to be what we always knew they were…cynical sideshows that sacrificed education to greed…will the pubic, the media, educators, and universities now stop this slow-moving ethics train wreck?

Of course not.  If they cared about how high-profile college sports were warping both America’s education and its values, they would have addressed the problem decades ago. They would have stopped it before, for example, schools started paying football and basketball coaches more than any professor. They would have stopped it before prestigious schools gave degrees to graduates whose entire education was a sham, who took ridiculously easy courses and who were held to infantile academic standards, all so rich, fat alumni would continue writing checks. They would have stopped it before a revered football coach held such power in a university that he was able to persuade the school’s leadership to allow a child sexual predator operate on campus.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, in a 99-page ruling agreeing with the claim of a group of plaintiffs fronted by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, issued an injunction against the NCAA from “enforcing any rules or bylaws that would prohibit its member schools and conferences from offering their FBS football or Division I basketball recruits a limited share of the revenues generated from the use of their names, images, and likenesses in addition to a full grant-in-aid.”

The ruling will be appealed, and some of its legal conclusions certainly seem debatable. That is not my concern. The opinion effectively kills the fiction that the semi-literate youths who perform on-the-field heroics to burnish the images of universities and attract huge broadcast fees are what the NCAA, alumni, students , the schools and the media pretend that they are. Now that we know they are not truly students, what persuasive ethical justifications can be given for them to play college sports at all?

My answer?


The obsession with having winning athletic teams at universities, and universities paying millions to get them, are unanticipated side effects from natural cognitive dissonance. Those with degrees want those degrees to be respected; the more admired or notable the school awarding the degrees is, the more the degree appears to worth, and the more self-esteem the degree-holder derives from it. It is, of course, irrational for anyone to feel better about their alma mater because it has a ranked basketball team, but cognitive dissonance isn’t rational, and neither is sports fanaticism or the amount of attention our culture devotes to games. Thus happy alumni gave more money to schools that win “extra-curricular” sports.  (Note: there is also a correlation between the general intelligence of a school’s alumni and their participation in this nonsense. There is a reason why M.I.T. and Cal Tech have lousy athletic teams: no one cares.) Those schools decided to attract more dollars and acclaim by giving out sports scholarships, ultimately allowing non-students into schools because they could pass, run or shoot, even when they had the academic skills proficiency of third-graders.

Then college sports became a staple of TV programming, and from that, merchandizing, so schools that emphasized sports when they should have been improving courses, cutting costs and keeping tuition reasonable became hooked. In the meantime, pro basketball and pro football institutionalized university athletic programs as their farm systems. What does serving as the minor leagues for professional sports have to do with education? Can you spell C-O-R-R-U-P-T-I-O-N? If you played on the basketball or football teams of many of the biggest sports mills, probably not.

The courts have confirmed that the athlete-students for such schools aren’t really students playing sports for fun (that was the idea, you know, way back when all those college fight songs were written), but under-compensated professional athletes in a billion dollar industry run by universities for the benefit of TV networks and pro sports leagues, so now several questions present themselves, like:

  • Why are universities spending so much money, time and publicity on activities unrelated to education?
  • If these aren’t students, what the hell are they doing playing games in uniforms bearing a school’s logo and colors?
  • If universities can hire athletes to play games for them instead of students (chief plaintiff O’Bannon has admitted that he was not really a student at UCLA), why stop there? Why don’t they hire professional singers and actors for campus theatrical productions, and professional mathematicians for the math teams? Hire retired British politicians as ringers on the debate team. Hire geniuses with multiple degrees to re-enroll as students, so they can make major discoveries as undergrads.
  • Why would a parent want to pay a cent to send his or her child to a school with inflated tuition that goes toward paying for a sports machine that pays professional athletes and coaches?

I’ve listened to the various college officials, NCAA officers, lawyers and sportswriters talk about how the O’Bannon case will change college sports, and what it principally reminded me of was the debate among the mobster heads in “The Godfather” about how organized crime would adjust to the new market for illegal drugs. The only right, fair and ethical ways for college sports to “adjust” and build a system of campus athletics that isn’t rotten to its foundation would be to…

  • Tell alumni to grow up. Cheer for the school’s teams, but gage your selfworth by other means.
  • Only admit students who would be admitted regardless of their athletic skills.
  • End sports scholarships. All of them. The college obsession with sports corrupts high schools as well, while sending the false message to kids that athletic talent is as important and valuable as acquiring knowledge and practical life skills.
  • Make all sports extra-curricular or intramural, like every other campus activity from theater to the Young Republicans and La Raza. Give no special privileges to athletes at all.
  • Have  coaches restricted to a pay scale in line with other faculty salaries.
  • Stop celebrating and promoting athletes in the media and in merchandizing.
  • Concentrate on education, not games.

College football and basketball have become putrid campus corruptors of students, alumni, institutions and cultural values, and  the corruption has dictated a legal measure that renders hopeless the effort to spin it as anything else. Doing the right thing, in this case, will require the corrupt and venal individuals who brought college sports to this state to reject their own venality.

It’s not going to happen. I will say this, however: anyone who roots for a college team that pays its players is a fool…and one that is helping to rot American higher education.


Sources: Fox News, USA Today, CBS, NYT1, 2

Graphic: Whistleblower-insider

13 thoughts on “The O’Bannon Case: A Judge Explains How The Law Requires An Unethical and Corrupt Practice To Be Fair….But It’s Still Unethical and Corrupt

  1. I didn’t pick my college because of athletics and was horrified that the athletics was a multimillion program that the students had to pay for out of addon fees. Athletics should have a budget proportional to the student participant/players. Every other student activity had to argue over 1% of the overall fund. So many other programs would help the larger student body more than catering to alumni dreams of ‘coulda woulda.’ Job hunting and helping more get internships to start, these athletes dream of pro sports, but most will be left with a worthless degree and won’t get the gold ring. That million dollars could help a lot more students. If alumni want a team to play big, they can pay for it.

  2. I purposely picked a school with no athletic programs. Why should I pay for something that adds nothing to my education?

  3. I agree with everything you’ve written here Jack, but I’ve recently watched (via facebook) my friend’s son go through this process as an athlete.

    He is a so-so student but an amazing football player. Multiple colleges courted him. But for this scholarship, he most likely would not have to gone to college at all. His mom is a waitress without two dimes to rub together.

    The easy answer is community college and then transfer to a better school if he does well — but realistically, that just doesn’t happen with kids like him. Even though his chances of going pro are slim — and the chances for injury are far greater — but this is his potential ticket out of working a minimum wage job like his mom.

    So again, I agree with everything you’ve written here, I just thought I’d add some color commentary.

    • Thanks, Beth. I appreciate the way sports offers the hope of a college education to kids who otherwise would never get into a prestige school, but it’s a trap and a cheat. This arises from the irresponsible rhetoric, now routine from all elected officials, emphasizing the importance of a diploma rather than an education. The athlete-students get the diploma (maybe) but no education.

  4. I disagree regarding the athletics scholarship.
    The time spent training is time unavailable for other extra-curricular activities, such as holding a part-time job.
    It should be paid for accordingly, perhaps $20 an hour for training and traveling between games, and the gametime itself.

  5. The value of collegiate athletics to the university is that it builds a sense of camaraderie and of belonging. That strengthens the university in the long run and as such, is a prudent investment.

    Plays are all about the individuals performing in it. Everyone can be in the stands, cheering for “our guys.” We do it as a nation in the Olympics, and the World Cup. Why else would anyone care about curling?

    • The value of collegiate athletics to the university is that it builds a sense of camaraderie and of belonging. That strengthens the university in the long run and as such, is a prudent investment.

      Sentence one is valid, but equally applicable to cheaper, less high profile, extra-curricular athletics. The second sentence is a non sequitur.

      • Such as? This one, I gotta hear! Popcorn at the ready. 🙂

        In most major universities, the football program is a profit center (they’d just as soon do away with women’s badminton), and the profit goes well beyond the ticket price. To get a premium seat, you often have to make a handsome contribution to the U, which is tax-deductible. At Michigan, it’s $4,000 a seat, bare minimum. Hard to get cheaper than a profit.

        • If it was a such a prudent investment, Harvard and Yale would do it, because they don’t miss a trick It’s unrelated to education, and as a profit center, should forfeit a school’s 501 C 3 status as unrelated income. Michael is exactly right.

  6. I am waiting on the national NLRB ruling, That will probably be the one that redefines sports in higher education (if it isn’t killed by some political maneuvering). The athletes are employees, you can’t get around that with the NLRB guidelines. They are also very poorly-paid employees, most are below minimum wage. If they became employees, they would have to be paid minimum wage, be given breaks, be compensated for meetings, travel time, etc. They also would be covered by workman’s comp and OSHA regulations. Since they work more than 30 hours/week, even in the off-season, they would get health care benefits. If this happens, I hope there is a serious discussion about where we should be spending our education dollars. I hope someone adds up the total costs of the sports, finds the % of the cost of an education this is, and then compares it to the amount of loans the students are taking to pay for college. I think they will find that we are financing these sports with loans.

    One note about the coaches, it isn’t that they are paid better than professors, they are paid better than the college presidents and better than the major league pro coaches. Some NCAA coaches make over $10 million/year. That is what 150 faculty cost. I know someone is going to say that none of them have salaries that high, but you have to look at the shoe contracts, etc. It is the school’s team,not the coaches, so that money is really the schools’s money, given to the coaches as additional salary. When you add that in, yes, some of them make that much.

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