Column: Everyone profits but the players in NCAA

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The coach of a team many people have winning the Final Four has a new contract extension that raises his average salary to $3.7 million a year.

Billy Donovan also got a $250,000 bonus just for staying at Florida, but his is not the sweetest deal in college athletics. That belongs to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who will get more than $18,000 simply because one of the school’s wrestlers is really good.

Little did grappler Logan Stieber know when he signed on for room and board at the university that winning the 141-pound weight class at the NCAA wrestling championship paid actual cash. Not to him, of course, because that would violate NCAA rules that seem designed to make everyone money but the athletes themselves.

Instead, Smith gets the bonus money, part of a deal where he gets paid every time there are “exceptional athletic achievements” under his watch. Smith already makes $940,484 a year, but if the athletes at Ohio State perform well he could earn more than $1.5 million a year under a sweetheart contract that runs through 2020.

That’s the way things operate in big-time college athletics, where the rich are getting richer. Hard not to profit when the labor is free, and the new television contracts seem to carry an extra zero every time they are renegotiated.

Unfortunately, the gravy train might be coming to an end. Current and former athletes are showing they learned something in college.

Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA could go to trial this summer and change everything. Several Northwestern athletes are trying to start a union. And a lawyer jumped in the fray last week with a federal lawsuit on behalf of four players that calls the NCAA and five major conferences an “unlawful cartel” that illegally restricts players from making money while taking in billions.

In the meantime, the NCAA continues to pocket an average of $771 million a year in television rights to the basketball tournament and millions more in ticket sales. There’s an official drink for the tournament, as well as an official wireless partner.

And the players? They get three squares a day and, in the case of New Mexico State last week, a long ride home in the middle of the night after an emotional overtime loss. And when the NCAA charger dropped them off around 5:48 a.m., they didn’t have enough buses to take everyone back to campus.

“The older I get the harder it is to understand how this has gone on as long as it has,” said O’Bannon, who led his UCLA team to the national championship in 1995. “It’s just unbelievable to me.”

O’Bannon isn’t the only former UCLA player pushing for player rights. Ramogi Huma formed the National College Players Association as a sophomore in the mid-1990s after seeing teammate Donnie Edwards suspended for accepting free food when his scholarship money ran out before the end of the month.

Now Huma is involved with the Northwestern players and actively campaigns for raises in scholarship amounts along with the dropping of the ban on athletes making money for themselves.

“Public opinion has changed a lot on this issue since I first got involved with it,” Huma said. “Less and less people are buying into the NCAA’s hypocritical definition of amateurism.”

O’Bannon, who began his lawsuit after seeing a likeness of himself in a video game licensed by the NCAA without his knowledge, still carries fond memories of winning the national title for UCLA.

But he also remembers not being able to afford a meal at KFC after a late study hall. He remembers teammates who played for nothing but a scholarship who weren’t as fortunate as he was to eventually play in the NBA.

And he remembers a lot of wealthy people paying big money to sit courtside at Pauley Pavilion to watch them perform.

“The revenue that’s generated is through the roof – and they play in domes with tall roofs,” O’Bannon said. “Yet the players get nothing.”

There are settlement talks ordered by the judge, but O’Bannon says he will not sell out his basic principles for a long overdue paycheck. Come June 9 he expects to be in a California courtroom challenging a system he believes is unjust.

“I’m prepared to go to trial,” he said. “It’s never been about monetary gain. It’s all about changing the rules and making sure the players, both present and former, are represented as well.”

Lofty goals, sure, but O’Bannon is on a crusade. He believes deeply in his cause and says he won’t back down.

And that should make the people who run college sports more than just a little nervous.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http:twitter.com/timdahlberg

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