As the O'Bannon v. NCAA trial continues to seemingly tilt in favor of the plaintiffs, I got a text Tuesday night from a longtime college athletics insider.
It read: "The notion that not ONE student-athlete is going to go on the stand for the NCAA really says it all. Because there are plenty of them that would, they [NCAA higher-ups] just have little to no relationship with them."
That resonated. In a trial that boils down to what can legally be defined as fair treatment of athletes, the NCAA is producing zero athletes to help argue its side. The NCAA has called 12 witnesses to the stand so far, with a total of 20 listed. None is a Division I football or basketball player.
Turns out there is a good reason for that, according to the NCAA: the association was legally restricted from having current student-athletes testify. As a potential alternative, the NCAA says it proposed having members of its Student-Athlete Advisory Committee brought in to testify, but plaintiffs' lawyers filed to have them excluded.
(Yahoo Sports' attempts to reach an NCAA staff member in regard to this subject earlier in the week were unsuccessful. An NCAA spokesperson said a text message seeking comment was not received.)
As is so often the case in college sports, what's best for the players gets decided by everybody but the players. Their voices go unheard. They are all but unknown to the people who make and enforce the rules that govern their athletic existence.
At the NCAA convention in January, amid all the high-minded rhetoric about changes to the governance structure that would help get long-delayed reforms passed, a question from a ballroom audience of about 800 left the Division I Board of Directors momentarily slackjawed on the dais. The question: "Where do the student-athletes fit into this governance structure?"
The answer, from Wake Forest president and board chairman Nathan Hatch: "That's not something we've wrestled with."
Hatch later doubled back and said athletes should be included in the process of running their sports, and since then there have been plenty of backbends by college administrators to produce supportive sound bites about student-athlete welfare. But the truth was clear then in San Diego and remains clear now in Oakland, Calif.: nobody really cares what the athletes have to say.
They may say otherwise – in fact, the Big Ten went into hurry-up offense mode Tuesday by releasing a statement overflowing with platitudes and pronouncements of support for its student-athletes. That was after commissioner Jim Delany had his day on the stand as an NCAA witness. Perhaps sticking a finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing, the Big Ten has become more vocal about pro-athlete reforms. Per its statement:
• We must guarantee the four-year scholarships that we offer. If a student-athlete is no longer able to compete, for whatever reason, there should be zero impact on our commitment as universities to deliver an undergraduate education. We want our students to graduate.
• If a student-athlete leaves for a pro career before graduating, the guarantee of a scholarship remains firm. Whether a professional career materializes, and regardless of its length, we will honor a student's scholarship when his or her playing days are over. Again, we want students to graduate.
• We must review our rules and provide improved, consistent medical insurance for student-athletes. We have an obligation to protect their health and well-being in return for the physical demands placed upon them.
• We must do whatever it takes to ensure that student-athlete scholarships cover the full cost of a college education, as defined by the federal government. That definition is intended to cover what it actually costs to attend college.
Those are all appropriate and laudable stances, especially for an entity that wants to draw a demarcation line short of paying players for name, image and likeness. But this sudden position paper ignores the fact that the Big Ten has long been front and center in the college sports amateurism crusade. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier and former Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee sat on virtually every powerful committee the NCAA has, and thus were part of the establishment that kept a rigid status quo which located all the power (and profit) in the pockets of the schools, their administrators and their coaches, and none in the pockets of the players.
The Big Ten was Amateurism Central for a lot of years, opposing any and all threats to the traditional collegiate model. Now the league wants to place itself at the front of a (guarded) reform movement that stops well short of where the O'Bannon plaintiffs want it to go.
Aside from simply trying to reposition in the face of a shifting landscape, there is another problem with this nationwide surge of Administrators Who Care: they carved up the college sports map just a few years ago with zero regard for student-athlete welfare. If the stress placed upon academic performance by realignment were a real concern, the Big 12 wouldn't send teams from Lubbock, Texas, to Morgantown, W.Va., on a weeknight for a conference game. The Southeastern Conference wouldn't have put Missouri and Florida in the same league, with more than 1,000 miles in between them. And the Big Ten wouldn't be on the cusp of shipping teams from Lincoln, Neb., to Piscataway, N.J., in the quest for greater television market share.
All those things are happening, whether or not it's good for the players. And in the meantime, the trial that could shape the future of college sports continues on, without a single student-athlete voice being heard on the NCAA's behalf.