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College athletes’ score doesn’t add up

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Kai Ryssdal: Basketball’s annual testament to the unchecked growth of college sports started today. Out of respect for those who’ve TiVo’d today’s early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, we will skip the results update. But there will be six rounds worth of games, countless office pools, millions of dollars bet elsewhere. And perhaps billions of dollars in television rights when the contract comes up for negotiation.

For all that, though, commentator Jon Wertheim says March Madness also lays bare one of the great hypocrisies in college athletics.

JON WERTHEIM: The debate over whether to pay college athletes is, of course, an old one. However, this year, there is a new wrinkle: It began when former UCLA hoops star Ed O’Bannon sat down to play the video game NCAA Basketball. He noticed a player in the game that looked a lot like him and bore his name. And he thought: How come I’m not getting paid for that?

A few phone calls later, O’Bannon became the lead plaintiff in a class action suit on behalf of former Division 1 football and basketball players. They allege the NCAA violated their rights when it used the athletes’ images in perpetuity. The NCAA making money off athletes when they’re in college is questionable at best. Making money off these athletes for time in memoriam, well, that’s another matter altogether.

The NCAA asked that the case be dismissed. But last month a judge rejected the request. So the case will proceed and O’Bannon and others will have their day in court. Oh and their lawyers, through the discovery process, will have the rare opportunity to comb through the NCAA’s books.

In similar cases, the NCAA has stated that athletes signed over their rights in exchange for the scholarships. O’Bannon doesn’t deny that he signed a student-athlete agreement. But says he was just a kid and had to do it to get a scholarship. He also points out that no parents were there, much less a lawyer, to explain the long-term implications.

The NCAA has also made the case that paying athletes would sully the ideals of amateurism that college sports represent. But the “amateur argument” loses its force when the organization then turns around and licenses video games. That’s precisely the kind of profitable marketing deal that a pro league makes. And by definition, pros get paid.

The prospect of compensating college athletes is thorny. Under Title 9, it might mean that a comparable number of female athletes may need to get paid. It could burden already taxed athletic departments across the country. And further corrupt an already vulnerable system. But still, it beats the status quo.

The NCAA needs to figure out how to pay these athletes now. Their contention that a scholarship and some textbooks is an even trade for billions in revenue — it’s not just unconscionable, it’s madness.

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