The Hartford Courant Jeff Jacobs column [The Hartford Courant :: ]
(Hartford Courant (CT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 17--Walter Harrison, a serious man of letters, is not without that most important of qualities: A dry sense of humor.
"So you want to check in with the wrong side of history," the University of Hartford president said after picking up the phone the other day.
Through the years, Harrison has been, among his high-profile positions, chairman of the NCAA executive committee and chairman of the NCAA committee on academic performance. He knows the inner workings of college athletics' ruling body. He also is a man not given to theatrics.
So when Harrison looks at federal Judge Claudia Wilken's ruling in the Ed O'Bannon case and the NCAA Division I board of directors' approval to give the Power 5 conferences more autonomy and says, "I think the landscape is going to be totally different in a few years" ... take that not from a man looking to grab headlines, but rather as one of considered thought.
Since Wilken ruled on Aug. 8 that the NCAA can't stop players from selling the rights to their likenesses, essentially trashing the warped NCAA version of amateurism, there has been plenty of slicing and dicing of her 99-page verdict.
Although the ramifications of Wilken's ruling certainly could be sweeping, the practical applications for now are narrow. FBS football players and Division I men's basketball players can get at least $5,000 a year for their likenesses placed in a trust fund by the school to be paid after they leave college.
"I'm not surprised generally by the ruling," Harrison said. "Like most people involved in intercollegiate athletics, I was a little positively surprised by her putting in a reasonable floor. It made common sense."
Wilken's ruling, however, leaves precedence for other cases, notably one led by Jeffrey Kessler that stands to change all the rules. Kessler, a wildly successful labor lawyer, filed an antitrust claim against the NCAA and the Power 5 conferences. He argues that college sports acts as a cartel and that no cap -- scholarship, cost of attendance, etc. -- is legal in a free market.
"College students should play college athletics. I realize that's more and more a minority view and more and more antiquated; nevertheless, that is my view," Harrison said. "As somebody who believes that, the Kessler case is by far the most threatening."
Harrison links Kessler's case directly to the Northwestern football team's union case. In backing the union bid, Peter Sung Ohr, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, ruled that the principal relationship between college athlete and university is as an employee.
"I reject that premise," Harrison said. "But if that is, indeed, the premise, a case like Kessler's is a slam dunk. And what that would do is create a new professional league for college players. ... I don't find that a very encouraging future. The Kessler case, in my view, destroys college sports.
"In examining it, I thought the release form that the NCAA required student-athletes to sign was a pretty shaky point on which to base [the O'Bannon] defense. For those athletes who bring back major returns to their university, to be denied any return whatsoever for their likeness seemed like a pretty weak defense. But for institutions like mine, we don't bring in any money based on that. Exactly how an umbrella group will survive this seems pretty murky. Perhaps by stages, but it looks to me we're headed to one group that's a professional league and the rest of us would do something else."
A full college scholarship is an extraordinary gift. Yet the NCAA and its powerful schools made the system stink with billions of television dollars. Palaces disguised as stadiums and arenas, multimillion dollar coaching deals and nothing for the athletes that made it possible? Greed has brought them this deserving and unpleasant dish. Yet as the NCAA unravels, there also should be an element of being careful of what we wish for among the agents of change.
We have to see how hundreds of schools not mining the TV gold are hurt. How will this affect Title IX? The O'Bannon decision only covers football and men's basketball scholarship athletes. Breanna Stewart, more famous than any UConn football player, gets no cut of the pie.
"The Power 5 conferences have very large liabilities, the lawsuits present a total potential change to their business model, and autonomy is essentially a way they felt they could be in a better position to withstand the most drastic suits," Harrison said. "From that point, the [NCAA] steering committee delivered for them."
A total of 75 schools would be needed to override the Power 5 autonomy and force the NCAA to reconsider the move.
"There's a lot of unhappiness at my level," Harrison said. "Phil Hanlon, president of Dartmouth, on a conference call said, 'So how does this help us?' That's one reaction. The other is, this isn't what we envisioned college sports to be like.
"A number of Power 5 presidents I know also have told me that [an override] would cause them to jump ship, either move to their own division or leave the NCAA altogether."
Faced with that possibility, few expect the smaller schools to risk losing the big boys.
Money from the NCAA men's basketball tournament provides about 85 percent of the NCAA revenue. [The football TV deal is struck independently of the NCAA.]
"I've never read the contract between Turner and CBS and the NCAA, but I'm rather certain there's an exit clause that gives those networks the right to get out if the major structure of the NCAA changes," Harrison said. "The women's basketball championship is funded by the men's basketball championship. So is Division III field hockey. Every NCAA championship is. If the Power 5 leave the NCAA and signs its own contract for a basketball tournament, that leaves the rest of us in a whole different picture.
"I realize there's a lot of anxiety in Connecticut, but no matter what happens, I think UConn will be OK in the end. I don't have the road map, but I'm certain given their success in men's and women's basketball, especially men's, they're going to be an attractive candidate for some major conference. It will happen."
If it ever came down to it, Harrison predicts a basketball tournament would be done in similar fashion to the new football playoff. A defined number of schools would compete with their own network contract. UConn would be in, Hartford wouldn't, but what about Big East schools? Where would that line be drawn? Nobody knows.
What Harrison does know is that we should be looking at four issues.
--The Northwestern unionization case, which goes next to the full NLRB in Washington.
"Under President [Barack] Obama, that organization is pretty much packed with union sympathizers," Harrison said. "They will back the regional director. The NCAA will then appeal to the Supreme Court and who knows what happens?"
--The NCAA appeal of the O'Bannon decision.
"That goes to one of the most liberal appeals courts in the country and they'll likely support it," Harrison said. That case also could land before the Supreme Court.
--The Kessler case.
"Undoubtedly, the most threatening and sweeping," Harrison said. "It basically would transform college sports into an employment relationship. If that happens, everything we know about how college sports are organized gets changed.
"I'm not optimistic. Look, I really don't disagree with the premise that over the last 10-15 years, those of us who have been in charge of the NCAA, myself included in a minor role, have put ourselves in this position. I'm just saying I don't think the outcome is a positive one. There's nothing wrong with professional models. I just don't think it suits college athletics."
Harrison threw in a 4A.
"At what spot does Congress decide to get involved?" Harrison said. "When I chaired the executive committee, we asked our outside counsel to explore an anti-trust exemption [like major league baseball]. They came back and recommended we not seek one. They weren't certain the NCAA could get it and also, once you ask, you open it up to all kinds of regulatory possibilities. Having lost the O'Bannon case, I think it becomes even more problematic. But put yourself in position of a senator from Alabama [with Bama and Auburn football]. He might see a real desire get something like that."
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