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NCAA fears consequences of giving up a portion of their revenues to players

FILE - In this April 3 1995 file phoUCLA's Ed O'Banncelebrates after his team wNCAA championship game against Arkansas Seattle.

FILE - In this April 3, 1995, file photo, UCLA's Ed O'Bannon celebrates after his team won the NCAA championship game against Arkansas in Seattle. O'Bannon is suing the NCAA over its use of former student athletes' images in DVDs, video games, photographs, apparel and other material. In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, July 21, 2009, O'Bannon says the NCAA illegally has athletes sign away their rights to the commercial use of their images and does not share any of the proceeds from their use with former athletes. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

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The NCAA basketball tournament is great theater.

Early round upsets produce Cinderella stories, lesser-known players make star turns and animated coaches mug for the cameras.

Yet every production has elements of drama simmering offstage and this applies to the NCAA.

The association and its licensing partners face an antitrust lawsuit from former players, led by ex-UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, over the continued use of their images and likenesses to profit and promote the NCAA.

The suit, filed in 2009, expanded to include current athletes and could get class certification in June.

Understandably, the NCAA and college administrators fear their financial model will be blown up if they have to give a cut of their revenue to past and present players. The plaintiffs want current players to receive royalties through a trust fund they can access after graduation.

Last week Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany filed a four-page declaration to support the NCAA’s opposition to class certification, in which he noted alternatives exist to paying athletes. Among them, going to a Division III model, he said.

It’s a doomsday scenario that makes Delany look like a politician relying on scare tactics to gain support for his cause.

In offering the Division III model as an alternative, Delany said it would be “more consistent with the Big Ten’s philosophy that the educational and lifetime economic benefits associated with a university education are the appropriate quid pro quo for its student-athletes.”

Perhaps Delany’s premise had validity before the mass commercialization of college sports, before EA Sports started making video games featuring the likeness of O’Bannon but not his name to avoid paying him royalties.

O’Bannon, the most outstanding player of the 1995 Final Four, cited a Classic Teams video game as an example of continued use of his image when he filed the suit in 2009 (The NCAA takes over athletes’ image rights forever by requiring that athletes sign waivers).

O’Bannon is the face of the lawsuit, but former shoe company executive Sonny Vaccaro is the force behind it.

Vaccaro, a former shoe-company executive, gained fame for setting up Michael Jordan’s first deal with Nike. He also had a prestigious all-star game for high-school seniors and groomed high-school basketball players for future apparel deals through his shoe company-sponsored ABCD camp and summer club tournaments.

He also signed college coaches and later universities to apparel contracts. All along he saw a lopsided equation with past and present athletes, the universities and the NCAA. Several years ago, after his retirement, he started speaking at universities and to congressional aides about the perceived injustices. In so doing, he caught the attention of a high-powered law firm that took on the O’Bannon case. Vaccaro is an unpaid consultant for the case.

The association’s administrators likely cringe that Vaccaro, a man known for wearing track suits and who speaks bluntly and crassly, could force them to change their ways.

I once told a high-ranking NCAA administrator that I thought Vaccaro was interesting. “So was P.T. Barnum,” he responded with an air of condescension.

But Vaccaro is no showman.

On this he is right. Some educators see that.

“There’s an enormous amount of waste in Division I,” said Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist, a longtime advocate of athletes’ rights. “There’s also a substantial amount of inefficiency. There could be a sensible reorganization within Division I to be able to cover payment of property rights to former and current athletes.”

Zimbalist mentioned inflated coaches’ salaries and said: “The reason for them is because athletes’ pay is suppressed. It makes no sense at all.”

Marlen Garcia is a lifelong Chicagoan and former sports reporter for USA Today and the Chicago Tribune. She is regular contributor in the Sun-Times Op-Ed section. Her e-mail is

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