Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sticking it to the People


Back in the halcyon days at M.I.T., when we were lying around the Larry Kahn Lounge dissecting string theory, El Hombre and Senor Penguin would often drift into discussions about unionizing college football players. “We’ll stage a wildcat strike right before the Orange Bowl,” we said, back when that particular game (and its interminable halftime show) mattered. We contended that the NC2A was milking so much out of the athletes while reaping such a colossal financial windfall that the gridiron warriors needed someone to protect them from the greedy forces that controlled the sport. After concocting a couple dream scenarios, we would lose interest and return to physics, calculus or Escapade.

Two recent, unrelated incidents prove that our instincts were right. College football players, in fact all college athletes, need some form of advocacy, the better to fight off the forces conspiring to exploit them.

The first blow came earlier this month, when the NC2A moved the date by which hoop players have to make a final decision about whether they will stay in the NBA Draft from June 15 to May 8. Although administrators, coaches and the sport’s shills (Jay Bilious, Dukie V, etc.) tried to hide behind the argument that the earlier deadline allows athletes who remain at their schools to miss less class time, the rule was changed for one reason: to let programs know sooner who will be back, the better to fill gaps with late-signing recruits. There is little benefit for the players, who now have almost six fewer weeks to determine whether they should stay or go. It won’t matter to those at the top of the list, but it will have a profound impact on those who don’t have first-round hopes, because it won’t allow as much time for them to get a complete sense of whether they belong in the Draft or need more time.

What’s worse is that the ACC is trying to get the deadline pushed up even more, to around April 15, about 10 days after the Final Four concludes. If a player has a great tournament and wants to see if that has sparked big-time NBA interest, he has less than two weeks to perform the necessary detective work and then two-plus months for any good vibes from the tourney to calm down and leave him the victim of a hurried decision.

At a time when schools are mainlining athletes into phony-baloney majors in order to maintain eligibility and boost GPA numbers to preserve scholarship levels, the “class time” argument is laughable. If the NC2A cared about studies, it wouldn’t have players’ leaving school on Tuesdays for tournament weekends and would put an end to mid-week non-conference TV showcase games that cost two days of school in November and December. If the NC2A is making any new rules, you can bet they are designed to benefit member institutions, not the athletes. This new regulation protects Roy Williams and other big-time coaches and puts many young – often poorly advised – players in danger of making life-altering decisions without sufficient time to gather a complete picture of their professional prospects. Sounds like the NC2A, all right.

The other news comes courtesy of the jurisprudence department, and involves a lawsuit filed by a former college football player that could be groundbreaking but will more than likely be thwarted by the NC2A’s superior legal muscle. Former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller has filed a class-action lawsuit against EA Sports and the NC2A for illegally using the likenesses of players in football and basketball video games. Although the products didn’t use players’ names, it was clear that specific members of teams were being featured. Take a look at any team from the ’08 game, and you’ll find that its members, particularly its key performers (QB, RB, WR, top defenders) are almost identical to the real-life version. If you played Oklahoma, you faced a QB that had the same jersey number and physical characteristics as Sam Bradford. And, if you go to, you can get an add-on that allows you to put the proper names on the back of players’ jerseys.

Predictably, the NC2A predicts it will be exonerated. EA Sports doesn’t sound too scared, either. Keller’s suit is seeking unspecified damages for thousands of players he feels were exploited. Meanwhile, each NC2A school is compensated by EA through Collegiate Licensing Company, and of course, EA Sports makes millions each year on the games, which are the only officially licensed video outlets for college football fans.

The key here is that once again, the players are getting hosed by the NC2A, whose members continue to reap large financial benefits on the backs of their players. The EA Sports mess is just part of the problem. Schools promote their football and basketball programs by using likenesses of players. They sell jerseys and other merchandise with numbers of top players. They build entire marketing plans around Heisman candidates, all-America hopefuls and record-breakers. Millions of dollars roll in. In return, the athletes receive a scholarship, which often comes with a not-so gentle push into majors that promote eligibility, not future career success. And, since the rules are written to benefit the university, that grant is not of the four-year variety, rather season-to-season, at the discretion of the institution.

What always interests El Hombre are the arguments posed by those defending the schools. They say that since the players are getting a free ride (which, if it’s of the in-state variety can come to less than $10,000 a year at some schools), they are being adequately compensated. Of course, if those same people were getting a set salary and brought in millions of dollars for their company, they would be demanding further compensation. The same goes for someone like Bradford, who will help Oklahoma fill its coffers through jersey sales, bowl appearances and donations from alumni overjoyed by the fruits of his sturdy right arm’s labors. Think Bradford will get anything extra? Not unless he has been working at a no-show job like former Sooners Rhett Bomar and J.D. Quinn.

Here’s hoping Keller and his attorney, Rob Carey, are successful in getting money for players whose likenesses are used without their permission. Set up a trust fund that would throw off some dough for each player, once his playing time is up. Or, EA could design its games to have generic players. That might not provide the same authenticity, but such realism should come with a price. Keller is trying to make sure EA and the NC2A pay up.

If they don’t, give Senor Penguin a call. He might just be crazy enough to resurrect those union dreams.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Start praying now for Sports Illustrated, because the venerable sports journalism bastion is in trouble. Its recent redesign is a disaster, advertising pages are way down, and the magazine has taken to the worst kind of cross-promotion. It’s bad enough that a few back pages are wasted on meaningless drivel pimping the SI web site, but the recent giant photo spread celebrating decades of photographs was a primer for a new book offered by Time, Inc. It’s a wonder Dan Jenkins hasn’t torn the place apart with an AK-47…During a recent trip to see the World Champions on the diamond with Deep Nose, et al, Top Cat came up with the perfect nickname for the Phillies’ troika of Raul Ibanez, Pedro Feliz and Carlos Ruiz: “The Killer Z’s.” Inspiration on display…Great job by the American Football Coaches Association to make their top-25 football ballots secret, beginning in 2010. It’s already doubtful they complete the things themselves. It’s already laughable that coaches have a say in a system that’s supposed to be unbiased and directly impacts their success. It’s already ridiculous that an election should help determine which football team is the best. Now, the coaches want to hide their ballots, the better to protect their grudges and favoritism? Ladies and gentlemen: Your BCS!...The WNBA season starts in 10 days, and the early line has ennui favored over disinterest by nine points…How about that Indy 500? Oh, you didn’t watch, either? If ratings keep dropping, the only place the race could be broadcast is as part of NBC’s prime-time lineup. Nobody watches that, either…You have to love hockey players. Detroit’s Jonathan Ericsson missed game five of the Wings’ series with Chicago because he had surgery that morning to remove his appendix. He’ll be back for the start of the Stanley Cup finals, though – three days after getting sliced open. If he were a baseball player, Ericsson would have been on the 15-day DL and needed a rehab stint with Stumptown in the Green Grass League before he could return to full-time work.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? There is an odd trait among some fans, who have developed an allegiance to a particular sport at the expense of another. For instance, lacrosse supporters are anti-baseball. Football fans hate soccer. It’s sort of like saying that you don’t like fish because you eat beef. Well, whether you prefer football, soccer or chicken, you should get behind the Philadelphia Union, which will join Major League Soccer next year in a spanking new stadium on the Chester waterfront. Sure, soccer doesn’t feature a lot of scoring, and the players react to minor physical contact as if they were Jose Canseco’s getting bludgeoned by a seven-foot Japanese MMA monster. But the game is exciting when you have a rooting interest in it, and thanks to the rabid Sons of Ben, who are just a few riots away from becoming legitimate soccer hooligans, Union games ought to be a good time. Union has a cool logo and the promise of a sharp home field. And if Philadelphia supports its new team, there’s a good chance we might get a World Cup qualifying match in town, which will allow fans to pelt Mexican players with bags of urine, giving them a taste of the same medicine the folks south of the border dispense to the U.S. side. So, get rid of those prejudices and join the Union. And don’t worry, you can still watch football.

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AND ANOTHER THING: If the Cavaliers rebound from their 3-1 deficit and win the Eastern Conference finals series with Orlando, there ought to be an investigation. Judging by the way things have gone in the first four games, the Magic is clearly the better team. So, if we reach a game seven, and NBA commissioner David Stern is sitting courtside with “special instructions” for the officiating crew, put it all on the Cavs. Cleveland has been unable to defend the Orlando perimeter shooters, and the Cavs’ non-LeBrons haven’t produced at a rate high enough to produce victory. In last year’s Finals, Boston shut down Los Angeles by making Kobe Bryant work like a mule for every point. Orlando is doing the same thing to the Cavs. Cleveland will probably win game five, but it shouldn’t take three in a row. If it does, something’s going to smell pretty rotten, and for once it won’t be the Cuyahoga River.


1 comment:

Neanderthal said...

Thank you for allowing us a glimpse of your living room drapes on either side of your article. It almost distracted me enough to think that your argument made sense. I sure hope my twins can go to that school for less that $10,000 a year. The glaring hole in your logic is that end of the rainbow they call the NFL contract. Without that, these poor, mumbling, bumbling idiots might be stuck getting a real four-year degree so they can write sports blogs, for a living. Or play video games. Much love, Neanderthal