Column: O’Bannon important, but not as advertised

It didn’t take long to realize that playing a sport in college takes over your life.

I’m a sophomore on the Mizzou swim team. While I absolutely enjoy swimming at this level, college athletics are not extracurricular activities like high school sports. They are a lifestyle. As a freshman I was constantly surprised by the differences between my life and those of my friends who did not play sports.

In the coming months, I will use this weekly column to discuss some of these unique challenges and issues that student-athletes face.

One of the things I found out quickly was that the NCAA has a lot of rules. That isn’t a criticism. There have been certain rules I disagreed with — until last year it was illegal for schools to include cream cheese with free bagels served as snacks — but for the most part I haven’t felt exploited by the NCAA policies that have come under heavy fire lately.

People have argued student-athletes aren’t really students, that we’re just here to play sports. Getting an education has always been a priority of mine.

The most hotly-debated issue recently has been the NCAA concept of amateurism. It was brought into the spotlight by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who challenged the NCAA’s rule preventing players from profiting from use of their images and likenesses by schools and outside entities. When U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that certain student-athletes were entitled to compensation, she permanently changed the NCAA by rejecting their definition of amateurism.

Sounds exciting, right? Student-athletes can get paid now!

Except actually very few student-athletes can, and probably not until after their years of NCAA eligibility. And that won’t start until at least 2016. And, as of now, only student-athletes playing revenue sports (football and men’s basketball) whose images are used for profit by their schools are even eligible for this money.

So it looks like the case won’t be quite as liberating for student-athletes as the media attention made it seem. Keep in mind that there is another lawsuit currently going through the courts that seeks to make student-athletes eligible to be paid for playing.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the changes that we know are coming: First and foremost, student-athletes may be compensated for use of their image or likeness. That compensation is to be put in a trust fund and held until after that student-athlete graduates or completes his or her eligibility. The NCAA can limit the amount of money athletes can earn for use of their images, but that cap cannot be less than $5,000 per year.

Former players cannot be paid as a result of this ruling, as they gave up their right to damages prior to the trial in an effort to get the case heard by a judge rather than a jury. These changes are not set to affect any athlete enrolled in college before July 1, 2016, and this could well be delayed further as the NCAA has announced its intention to appeal the case.

Another change brought about by the case is the removal of the NCAA’s ability to cap scholarships. Now, all schools can pay for the entirety of a student-athlete’s cost to attend, if they so choose. Recently, independent of this ruling, the ‘power five’ conferences were granted more autonomy by the NCAA in order to vote on the issue of scholarship caps for themselves.

So the bottom line is this: no current student-athletes are likely to be affected, and even when the changes do take place, the vast majority of student-athletes will not see a cent from the ruling as it currently stands. For future swimmers like me, the O’Bannon case is not going to have any direct consequences.

However, the most important effect of the ruling is that it opens the door for other cases to challenge the way the NCAA compensates student-athletes. In striking down the NCAA’s long-held system of amateurism, the O’Bannon verdict gives hope to cases like the Northwestern football players’ effort to unionize. It is no bold prediction to say that a few generations down the road the NCAA is going to be a very different system, and it is possible we will look back on the O’Bannon case as the catalyst.

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