NCAA playing defense

Do you know what NIL is? If your answer is “what Cameroon scored against Mexico on Friday,” nice try

Do you know what NIL is?

If your answer is “what Cameroon scored against Mexico on Friday,” nice try, but that’s not what I was looking for.

While everyone has been immersed in the attention-grabbing swarm of World Cup, Stanley Cup, NBA championship, U.S. Open or some combination thereof, the Trial of the Century began on Monday. No, really.

On the 20th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson Trial of the Century, we only had to wait 14 years for the 21st century’s version.

What, you hadn’t heard?

No white Bronco, bloody glove or Bruno Magli shoes this time, but instead, NIL, which stands for “name, image and likeness” and is the core point of contention in the Ed O’Bannon class-action antitrust suit against the NCAA.

It’s been five years in the making and began in front of U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken on Monday in Oakland, Calif.

Without getting into the broader and much more complicated pay-for-play issue, which this antitrust trial technically isn’t about, I believe the plaintiffs’ case has merit because they’re being restricted from sharing in profits made by the NCAA using the players’ NIL. There’s no competitive market if the players can’t negotiate their own deals, the argument says.

We’re talking about ungodly billions of dollars in television rights and revenue that the NCAA and schools are making off the players, who are prohibited from taking even a crumb from the pie, in the name of preserving amateur status.

I’m not a lawyer, but a point made at the trial on Monday by antitrust expert Roger Noll of Stanford University seems to make sense, that the onerous rules and penalties governing the specific area of NIL and the players’ rights to gain profit from it sounds a lot like the behavior of an illegal trust.

“It’s called a cartel,” Noll said.

It’s easy to see why some people won’t empathize with the players, and to some degree I feel the same way.

For one thing, the only sports we’re talking about here who stand to benefit, initally, are the cash cows basketball and football, from the elite conferences of Division I. You see the luxurious multi-million dollar facilities and figure, well, those guys are doing OK for themselves.

O’Bannon, the MVP of UCLA basketball’s 1995 national championship team before leaving for the NBA, initiated the antitrust suit in 2009 after he discovered that an EA Sports video game sanctioned by the NCAA was using his likeness without his consent.

He was the first to testify on Monday, and admitted that his academic career at UCLA was a sham.

O’Bannon said he spent 40-45 hours a week on basketball, which made it hard to find time to go to class, but he managed to slide through just enough to maintain his eligibility.

“I was an athlete masquerading as a student,” he said.

One of untold thousands of athletes that the NCAA has gained considerable profit from.

Please, let’s not use words like “oppressed” when it comes to these players from elite Division I programs. And that’s not how the 20 plaintiffs, who also include Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, are trying to portray themselves.

This one’s on the NCAA. The case doesn’t seek damages, but is asking for an injunction against punishment of players who sell rights to their own NIL. Not a money grab, but a game-changer.

It looks like the biggest hurdle the plaintiffs will have to leap is to prove that the players have NIL rights in broadcast and licensing agreements and that there is marketable value in that right. The NCAA’s position is that there is no legal right once you sign up for a scholarship.

The case is expected to last two weeks or so, and it’s impossible to tell how Judge Wilken will rule. Even if O’Bannon loses, the climate for change in how the NCAA operates and regulates has shifted. Other similar cases are looming.

This one is not being televised, nor is it being tried in front of a jury, so it won’t resemble the O.J. made-for-TV event. Nobody got killed here. No popcorn required.

But there’s this: The O’Bannon case promises to be a watershed moment in the history of big-time college sports and how they’re regulated, no matter the outcome.

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