Editorial: O’Bannon v. NCAA: How much are athletes worth?

In the world of college sports, we tend to idolize athletes. They give us a reason to get together with friends and tailgate for hours, to expose our painted torsos to the elements despite chilling temperatures and to celebrate our alma mater until our voices are hoarse.

But on paper, these athletes aren’t worth very much at all. They are worth approximately nothing, according to Roger Noll, a professor of economics at Stanford University, who maintains that the NCAA fixes the worth of athletes’ names, images and likenesses at zero. 

“It’s called a cartel,” he said. “The (NCAA) creates a price-fixing scheme among its members.” 

Noll made these statements in a setting that is now all-too-familiar for the NCAA — a courtroom. Noll sat on the witness stand during an antitrust trial that began on Monday between former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and the NCAA. 

O’Bannon has sued the organization, claiming that the NCAA and its partners have violated the Sherman Antitrust Act — which prohibits certain business activities that are deemed anticompetitive — by engaging in monopolistic or cartel-like ventures. He claims that the NCAA has illegally used his and other athletes’ likenesses for profit.

This isn’t a new accusation towards the NCAA, but this time, Judge Claudia Wilken took away the NCAA’s catch-all shield. “Amateurism” — the concept the organization has been using for years now as a defense for using athletes for their own gain and allows the NCAA to “minimize the involvement of third parties,” according to NCAA President Mark Emmert — is not at issue in this trial. Wilken is only concerned with whether or not the NCAA business model is legally competitive or not. 

When you actually begin to humanize athletes, it becomes clear that it’s not. Our likeness, whether it be our name, photograph or even a video game representation of ourself, is inherently ours. Depending on who you are, it can have monetary value just like any other good or service.

For instance, 75 percent of schools with a quarterback featured in the last collegiate football season’s Davey O’Brien Award watch — the award given to the best college quarterback each season — sold team jerseys featuring the particular player’s number, thus using his likeness as a means to boost sales. 

“It’s an indication of value of a product with the individual’s likeness,” Noll said.

Take Pitt basketball as another example. Pitt was formerly known as an Adidas school and now it’s a Nike-sponsored school. 

Consequently, all players must always wear Nike apparel and essentially be  walking billboards for the company, in contrast to professional players in the NBA who use their bodies as they see fit. Yes, they wear team jerseys that belong to team sponsors, but the players themselves can wear any brand of sneakers and receive the appropriate royalties for their valuable advertising service.

The NCAA continues to maintain that an athlete’s image is worth nothing and claims it does not technically owe the players anything for using it. 

Of course, players knowingly give away their namesake when they agree to play for a team. But do they really have any other choice? For revenue-generating college sports such as football and men’s basketball, there is no realistic alternative route for players to take towards the pros other than through the NCAA. 

The organization has a monopoly on creating professional athletes. Players do not have any other setting in which to demonstrate their abilities and, during their time in the NCAA, the schools basically own them and profit off their likenesses. 

O’Bannon, now a car salesman, realized this years after his college experience. He was not a “student-athlete,” but an athlete “masquerading” as a student, he explained on the witness stand. He knew he was at UCLA to play basketball and the school brought him there solely to make money from it. 

Whether or not he wins the case, O’Bannon has once again brought the discussion to the forefront. Hopefully — for the athletes’ sakes — the structure of the NCAA will change as a result.