Ed O'Bannon Lawsuit: Could College Athletes Finally Start to Get Paid For Working?

As millions of fans get ready for the start of another college football season, probably unbeknownst to most of them, college sports could be in for some radical changes. A lawsuit brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA has the potential to change college athletics as we know it. 

The debate over whether student athletes should be paid is not new. Opponents of paying collegiate athletes note that these students are already essentially being compensated through athletic scholarships, however, many may not know that these scholarships are not guaranteed or that the average college athelete's scholarship is oftentimes less than full tuition. Division I athletes were recently given the ability to work part-time during the school year with restrictions that the average college student isn't subject to. Considering the time restrictions that come with being a college athlete and the fact the a number of Division I players come from low-income communities, it's not surprising that some athletes run into financial difficulties. Universities aren't the only ones benefiting from college athletics. Major sports leagues like the NFL are able to use the NCAA as de facto minor-league systems that save them millions of dollars a year. With the abundance of athletes enrolling in college solely because of the opportunity it presents to one day play professionally, at many schools the "student" component of label student-athlete is more symbolic than representative of the reality of college sports. 

Collegiate athletics can probably trace their history to a regatta between Harvard and Yale in 1852, when the Elkins Railroad Line sponsored a boat race between the two rival academic institutions. As Smith College professor Donald Siegel explains, college athletics rose in popularity following the Civil War as more young men began attending college with the passage of the Morrill Act and rebelled against the strict paternalistic regulations laid down by headmasters by establishing student-run-and-financed competitions. Competition during these early years was both fierce and profitable, with Siegel noting that similarly to today, the creation and maintenance of sports programs were costly endeavors with income being highly dependent on a program's ability to win. These early days of intercollegiate athletics were also marked by concern over athletes diverting time away from their studies and raucous celebrating by the student body during pep rallies. These activities were allowed to continue, however, because they still were deemed a more beneficial way for students relieve stress than previously widespread mischievous behavior. Siegel also notes leadership changing at many universities from clergy to individuals with business backgrounds, who saw athletics as a way to attract more students at a time when one could easily improve their condition through apprenticeships. College athletics were never meant to serve any academic purpose, but were mostly used as profitable public-relations instruments that generated income by winning. 

Having students run and finance these early athletic programs created hosts of negative consequences, which culminated in the establishment of athletic conferences such as the Big 10 in 1895. These conferences were controlled by university presidents and faculty who emphasized the adoption of standardized regulations and established rules such as banning player monetary compensation and restrictions on transferring between schools. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a nonprofit organization founded by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 in response to the growing concern over the brutality and commercialization of collegiate football. The NCAA generated over $800 million in revenue last year and is expected to gross a similar total for the 2012-2013 season, with 90% of revenue projected to come from media-rights payments from the likes of Turner Broadcasting and CBS Sports. Universities also generate billions of dollars a year form college athletics, with some schools amassing nine figures' worth of expenses during the course of a single athletic season. Like the early days of collegiate athletics, commercialization and the "win at all cost" attitude it engenders has led to many instances of questionable university practices and outright exploitation of university athletes. 

To many avid college-sports fans, the labeling of certain programs and their players as student-athletes is often taken with a grain of salt. There are literally dozens of college football and basketball programs stocked with players with no intention of doing more than the bare minimum required academically to play. Age restrictions enacted by the NBA and NFL create a situation where if a top high-school athlete wants a good shot at making one of these leagues, he must first enroll in a university. There are many cases where star high-school athletes were given preferential academic treatment. Buzz Bissinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning Friday Night Lights chronicles how high school athletes are exploited by high school coaches and college recruiters. College athletes are also prone to injury because of the competitive nature of college sports and the desire by some coaches to get as much out of a player as physically possible over a short period of time. An injury suffered during practice or in a game could mean the loss of financial support for a student athlete. 

The recent media coverage of the affirmative-action debate oftentimes doesn't consider other forms of non-academically-based acceptance practices such as legacy and athletic scholarships. The fact that some college athletes with no desire to graduate from a university may take seats away from other prospective students should be a concern. These athletes are essentially hired guns spending time in a profitable de facto minor league system waiting out the opportunity to be called up. College athletics has never really been about academics and now is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry that enjoys nonprofit status. If the NCAA cares to make sports more in line with actual learning, why not offer more protections for college athletes by way of guaranteed four-year scholarships and more assistance with post-graduation education and career placement and training? If not, the major end-of-the-season sporting events should offer cash prizes to the winning teams and college athletes should be able to profit off of their talents and likeness like every other college student.