Are College Sports Players About to Get a Share of TV Revenue?

Posted on November 20, 2013.

If I was a TV sports play-by-play guy, I’d hate to cover a Georgia Tech football game. When Georgia Tech is on offense, I’d have a hard time telling you who has the ball.

And that’s the same way I feel about the recent win scored against the NCAA by present and former college football and basketball players, who are seeking a share of the millions paid to broadcast these college sports on TV.

Georgia Tech runs the triple-option offense. When the quarterback receives the ball from the center, he makes an immediate decision as to whether to hand the ball to a running back or to keep it.

If the quarterback keeps the ball, pretty soon he makes a decision as to whether to keep the ball the whole way or to pitch it to another running back.

The point is to confuse defensive players as to who has the ball. A good triple-option offense can disguise things well enough that you might not know who has the ball until the play is well down the field. That confusion applies to the TV play-by-play guy in addition to the defensive players.

Similarly, I can report with confidence that, in court, present and former college football (and basketball) players just ripped off a huge legal run and now have the ball in the red zone (i.e., inside the opponent’s 20-yard line). They’re threatening to score a substantial piece of future TV revenue to be paid for college football and basketball games.

Yet, it’s complex to graph out exactly how they ran that big play, and it’s difficult to chart how they might run the triple option on their next legal play to get into the financial end zone.

Specifically, a federal district court in California recently certified a class-action mainly against the NCAA in a lawsuit in which current and former college football and basketball players claim the NCAA broke antitrust laws by conspiring with others to prevent players from receiving a share of TV revenue.

The court refused to certify a class for the purpose of seeking money damages. But it certified a class for the purpose seeking a court order (an injunction in law-speak) that could pave the way for the athletes getting a share of future TV revenue.

Class certification doesn’t decide whether the plaintiffs have a winning claim. The NCAA might have good arguments against liability.

But the certification decision created tremendous pressure on the NCAA to settle now and give players a share of TV revenue to avoid potential future rulings that could lead to the players getting an even greater share.

In class-action litigation, the primary battle is over whether a class gets certified. Once that happens − once the court gives permission to a set of attorneys to represent a large group of unnamed individuals with the same claim − the potential for a massive loss by the defendant becomes a major threat, perhaps an existential one.

This is where things get hazy, unfortunately. There are many issues to be addressed before a court or the NCAA could decide whether to pay a share of TV revenue to players. It’s unclear how many issues would get resolved.

Among those issues, the NCAA requires strict amateurism by players − no salary, no paid endorsements, no autographs for money (Sorry, Johnny Manziel). Does a court have the power to overturn that amateurism rule? Is it OK to set aside money for players to receive after they finish college?

Also, while the players are proceeding on an antitrust theory, they really are claiming that their names and faces are being used on TV without their permission. It’s unclear whether a sports broadcaster needs such permission from players.

Then there is Title IX, which essentially requires colleges to devote equal resources to men’s and women’s athletics. While women’s basketball is included in this suit, their games generate far less TV revenue than football or men’s basketball.
Could this result in male college athletes getting paid much more money than female ones and, if so, would Title IX permit that?

Perhaps this legal complexity is only entertainment for law geeks like me and won’t matter much to the resolution of the case. Like the triple option, while the next play may be confusing, the potential result is clear. The NCAA faces a major risk of having to pay a substantial share of TV revenue to college players.

When significant risk is present and lots of money is at stake, well-heeled defendants tend to settle. The question tends to be “how much,” not “if.” We’ll see.

Written on November 20, 2013
by John B. Farmer
© 2013 Leading-Edge Law Group, PLC. All rights reserved.