Ruling acknowledges realities of big-time college sports

College football and basketball at the major conference level haven’t been about amateur athletics for a long time, with huge amounts of money going to the NCAA, member institutions, broadcasters and coaches.

Everyone cleans up – everyone, that is, except for the players putting their abilities and bodies on the line.

Yes, some athletes parlay college success into lucrative professional contracts. But for most of them, their college playing days are the pinnacle of their athletic careers. If they’re going to cash in, it’s now or never. Many leave college with sports-related physical problems and no degree, or a worthless one, often having taken dumbed-down “jock” classes to leave enough time for training.

While much of the public may still be under the impression that “student athletes” are playing football or basketball at the big-conference schools, the players know why they’re there: to do a job. And the job isn’t getting a college education. But because of NCAA rules, they receive little for doing that job. Schools can pay for tuition, books, room and board; but because scholarships are capped, they don’t cover the full cost of attending college.

Now a federal judge has recognized those realities with a ruling that, essentially, tells college sports to give athletes a piece of the multimillion-dollar action. It was the right decision, even if parts of it are confusing.

In a lawsuit against the NCAA filed by former collegiate all-American basketball player Ed O’Bannon, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA’s member institutions violate antitrust law by denying their athletes a share of the income made from using their names and images in television broadcasts and video games.

O’Bannon brought the suit on behalf of 20 current and former players after seeing his image used in a video game long after he’d graduated. He received no compensation for the use from his alma mater, UCLA.

Wilken’s decision is likely to be appealed. But if it holds up, it could have an effect on other lawsuits aimed at loosening the NCAA’s stranglehold over college athletes by seeking extra compensation, better medical benefits and bargaining rights.

The NCAA fought the lawsuit, but it recognizes that it needed to give colleges more leeway in compensating athletes. The day before Wilken’s ruling, the NCAA voted to allow schools in the “Power Five” conferences (which includes the Pac-12) to offer players money and benefits beyond what current rules allow. After acknowledging that point, appealing to the sanctity of amateur athletics in disputing Wilken’s ruling smacks of hypocrisy.