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COMMENTARY: Momentum Builds to Pay College Athletes

Charles E. Sutton | 11/18/2013, 4 p.m.
With only a few weeks left in the college football regular season, we stand on the verge of one of ...
Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller looks to pass in the first half of the Buckeyes' 56-0 road win over the Purdue Boilermakers on Nov. 2. (Sandra Dukes/USA Today via ohiostatebuckeyes.com)

With only a few weeks left in the college football regular season, we stand on the verge of one of the biggest revenue generators in sports — the bowl games. Each of these games can bring millions of dollars to the schools that are fortunate enough to participate. But of all the money earned, none of it will be shared with the players themselves.

Over the coming weeks, several big-time college football games will be played to determine which schools will earn the chance to play in these bowl games, which have become cash cows for college football. Brewing behind this curtain of dramatic games is a class-action lawsuit that looks to earn money for players through specific portions of college sports income, including the largest of them all: broadcast-rights contracts.

The suit, filed 10 days ago, was brought against college sports' governing body and includes most Division 1 football players. If successful, the players could receive a slice of the revenue generated by college football broadcasts. Many players aren't even aware that they're a part of the lawsuit because it hasn't received much media attention.

The suit may have flown under the radar, but the debate about compensating student-athletes certainly has not. With many colleges and universities bringing in millions of dollars in annual sports revenue, many feel that the income should be shared with the athletes.

What first needs to be made clear is that football and men's basketball are largely responsible for all sports-related income. In many respects, the money earned by football and men's basketball is used to fund other sports programs that earn little to no money. So if we're going to talk about revenue sharing, it should be emphasized that the money need only be shared with football and men's basketball players.

The National College Players Association is a nonprofit organization that advocates for student-athletes on issues such as guaranteed four-year scholarships instead of the current one-year renewable ones, and long-term healthcare. The NCPA, which does not have the authority to negotiate on issues such as television revenue, seeks to establish an account funded by licensing and television revenue that players can access after college.

Ed O'Bannon, a former basketball star at UCLA, sued in 2009, claiming it was unfair that the NCAA could sell broadcast rights to games he participated in or license his image for video games while not allowing him to share in any of the proceeds. On Nov. 8, a federal judge determined that the case was a class action, and that unless they opt out, all bowl-subdivision football players and Division 1 men's basketball players are suing the NCAA.

O'Bannon won't receive any money under the class action because the judge ruled that players can't recover funds already lost. However, if the plaintiffs are successful, it could force the NCAA to include players in TV-rights deals.

A lot of money is at stake here. The NCAA has a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with Turner Broadcasting and CBS to air the men's basketball tournament, and the Pacific 12 Conference has a 12-year, $3.8 billion broadcast deal with Fox and ESPN. Initially, the plaintiffs were asking for 50 percent of such deals. But the judge's ruling in the O'Bannon case indicates that the percentage could change under a settlement agreement or if the plaintiffs win. A trial in the case is scheduled for June, but a ruling could come sooner.

If the judge rules for the plaintiffs, it could open the door for college athletes to receive financial compensation beyond TV and licensing. Over the next few months, the college sports landscape could change and players may find themselves sharing some of the revenue they helped to generate — something that many feel has been a long time coming.