The fate of the non-revenue NCAA athlete

On Monday my post is generally related to a timely sports topic prominently in the news, is focused on the business of sports or covers a sports subject at random.

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I don’t know much about law, economics, business, marketing, public relations, television rights and industrial organization.

I certainly don’t know many details of coaching and motivating athletes to compete at their peak, and the nutrition, weight training, sports psychology and other elements that go into maximizing athletic performance.

ed-obannon-uclaFor the last couple of decades, what I’ve been able to figure out is asking enough questions to put a few words together about the notable achievements of young, talented athletes, mostly at the college and Olympic levels.

I’ve gotten to know some of them, and their coaches, and the people who make their exploits possible. In the world of intercollegiate sports, I do believe that most of the adults I’ve met do work to serve the best interests of these young people. They still see themselves as educators, in spite of generous salaries in some cases, and want to see their younger charges learn lessons they can carry with them into adult life.

This sounds quaint and sentimental, I know, but my first thoughts about last week’s massive developments in the college sports world — the O’Bannon ruling and the NCAA granting more rules-making latitude to the “Power 5” conferences — were about the young athletes I’ve covered, both male and female, now grown, and living successful lives.

Many of them played at big schools, in “non-revenue” sports funded by the largesse of football and men’s basketball that are at the crux of the O’Bannon case, and serve as the focal points of the NCAA’s autonomy decision and a push for union representation for football players at Northwestern University.

Are we at the dawn of the age of college athlete power? I hope so. Some are more skeptical, but they always were.

How all of these issues will play out is still uncertain. But the public appetite for more and more games appears to be insatiable. When the ESPN-backed SEC Network launches on Thursday, it will be available in at least 90 million homes. Even as a Southerner who’s long covered the SEC, I find this staggering.

Some athletes in revenue-producing sports may be able to receive additional stipends and other compensation beyond the terms of their scholarships as a result of the O’Bannon ruling, and that’s been long overdue. The idea of unionization, still pending at Northwestern, also is intriguing. So are the implications of Title IX, even with all women’s sports clearly being in the non-revenue category. Major conference women’s basketball may get piggy-backed onto this, but it’s still too soon to tell.1375138516000-c01-EA-sports-18-1307291857_4_3

But what about the male tennis player, or female lacrosse player, or non-scholarship athlete of either gender you don’t see on Saturday afternoons on television? Those young people who want to compete in their sport for just a little while longer, before they take on the obligations of adult life? Those young people who feel blessed and privileged to be able to play, even if their likeness never appears in a video game or their name gets mentioned on nothing more than their school’s athletic department website?

I hate to sound like an NCAA zombie here, because I’m decidedly not. But what will become some of these athletes, those who aren’t going to be talked about as the O’Bannon case is being appealed?

There’s been much media consternation — understandably so — about football and male basketball players, many of them African-American and from impoverished backgrounds, who make their coaches and athletic departments millions while being relegated to “amateur” status. Their sports will continue to become professionalized, and there’s no going back.

I don’t have any answers and don’t know what to make of all that has happened in the last week. But I keep thinking about the young people I’ve seen go from high school to college to the pros (yes, usually in something other than sports) and hope that avenue isn’t going to be scaled back for them.

One of those athletes, Danielle Donehew, is the new executive director of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. I wrote about her high school team winning Georgia state championships, then her playing career at Georgia Tech. I remember seeing her at the Women’s Final Four with her mother as a high schooler, determined to have a career in sports, and it’s cool to see how much she’s achieved already.

Donehew also is a former associate commissioner of the Big East and American Athletic Conference and steps into her new role as her sport, and the realm of college athletics, is undergoing a major transformation.

What I do know is that college athletes, present and former, must become an active part of what comes next. Amid last week’s news was a New York City forum held by the Big 12, mostly featuring athletic directors and journalists.

Of the 12-member lineup, however, only former Texas running back Selvin Young was what the NCAA likes to call a “student-athlete,” and he had to battle for speaking time with the likes of Ken Starr, Steve Patterson, Oliver Luck and Donna Lopiano.

Too many well-paid adults with a vested interest in the status quo thinking they know what’s best for unpaid athletes. This has got to stop.

Ed O’Bannon took a bold step when he challenged the NCAA, and I’m glad he’s remaining vocal. But that needs to be the beginning of a process that transforms college sports into a truly student-centered model, revenue-producing or not.

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