America's college sports stars try to level the paying field

Out of America: College football and basketball are big business; now players are challenging the system where they essentially work for free

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It's been dubbed, with typically engaging US hyperbole, "the sports trial of the century". Well, not quite. The cases that removed the maximum wage, and the Bosman ruling and its US equivalents, ending a system whereby players were virtual chattel of their clubs, were surely more important. Still, the lawsuit led by a former university basketball player named Ed O'Bannon, currently being fought out in a California courtroom, is no minor matter. If he prevails, the United States' top college athletes could actually get paid for their labours.

So what, you may wonder: college sport, what's the big deal? If so, then you haven't lived in the US. Elsewhere in the world, and certainly in Britain, university sport conjures up mostly Arcadian images, of deck chairs round a cricket field, or proud parents on the touchline as their offspring do battle on a muddy football pitch; at most, a bit of boozy jostling for a decent spot on the Surrey side on Boat Race day.

Here, though, college sport – or, more exactly, basketball and, above all, college football (the American variety) – is a mega industry. In some parts of the country, college games eclipse their major league equivalents: imagine, say, the University of Manchester football team having a bigger following than Manchester United.

Of the 120 largest sports arenas in the US, nine are for college football, the smallest of them with a capacity of more than 92,000. In some of the largest universities, private as well as public, the most important – and best-paid – official is not a star professor but the coach of the football or basketball team. At the University of Alabama, for instance, football coach Nick Saban reportedly makes $6.9m (£4.1m) a year. Then, again, why not? The team, known as The Crimson Tide, is the biggest thing in Alabama, period.

The teams play in jealously protected leagues or conferences, and operate scouting systems to spot the best highschool talent. For the most successful colleges, the rewards are huge, fuelled by colossal television contracts. The five biggest football leagues pull in more than $1bn a year; then there's a play-off contract worth $7.3bn over the next decade. The deal for the men's annual college basketball tournament (aka "March Madness") will bring in even more, $10.8bn over 14 years.

The good news is that this funds university sports programmes that otherwise might not be viable. The bad news is that this gravy train is run by an organisation called the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, these days about as popular here as Fifa among followers of another sporting tournament now unfolding. The truly astonishing news is that the only people not aboard the train are the individuals who make it all possible, the athletes themselves.

The gigantic moneymaker that is US college sport rests on a pseudo-Corinthian sham – that student athletes are amateurs for whom their sport is a beloved hobby, a mere sideline. The reality is very different. The colleges compete ferociously to enlist the best prospects. They are offered scholarships, meaning that tuition (though not always board) is free. But, once enlisted, the sports star is often shunted off into easy courses requiring little actual study, so more time can be spent on training. The system would be defensible if the sacrifice was later rewarded by rich contracts in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association. In reality, only 1 per cent of student athletes go on to a major league career. For the rest, after their moment in the sun, life's humdrum grind awaits.

All this may be about to change. The torrent of money pouring into college sport has raised the stakes, generating scandal after scandal, including under-the-counter payments to athlete's families, and fake courses that remove the tiresome need to study at all. As O'Bannon testified last week, "I was an athlete masquerading as a student." But his is only one of several legal challenges that threaten to change the model of US college sport for good.

Earlier this year, the federal body governing labour relations ruled that football players with scholarships at Northwestern University in Chicago were employees of the university, entitled to form a union. Northwestern is a private, not a public university, and legal wrangling has held up an announcement of the result. But the outcome could be a crushing blow to the existing system.

That has been followed by two cases relating to the use of college players' likenesses in NCAA-licensed video games (sold at much profit but for which they receive nothing). One was brought by a former Arizona State University quarterback, Sam Keller, and a group of players who sought financial compensation. The NCAA settled out of court for $20m, all the while denying it amounted to pay for athletic performance – which, of course, it was.

O'Bannon's grievance is similar. However, he and his fellow plaintiffs are not after money. Far more threateningly, they want an end to the NCAA rule that bars payment to college athletes for the use of their names or images in broadcasts or video games. A final verdict may take months, even years. Suffice it to say that the judge's comments thus far have not been sympathetic to the NCAA.

But the most dangerous challenge of all is the suit filed in New Jersey last month, by the labour lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, aiming at the NCAA's real Achilles heel: the charge that it operates as a price-fixing cartel. The organisation, he argues, has illegally limited payment to student athletes to the value of a sports scholarship, regardless of the billions of dollars of revenue they generate.

Kessler wants the fiction of amateurism dropped, and to turn top college players into salaried employees, in an unfettered market. "In no other business," he says, "would it be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn." For how much longer?

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