On Wednesday, former Michigan basketball star Chris Webber’s 10-year excommunication imposed by the NCAA ended. “Excommunication” was not the NCAA’s term, but it was the term Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Bachman used when she wrote about Chris Webber this week. She joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Remind us of what Chris Webber did wrong back in 1993.
RB: Well the NCAA found him guilty of accepting over a period of about five years $280,000 that was offered by a Michigan basketball booster. That’s in violation of the NCAA’s amateurism rule, which say that…a player cannot accept anything above tuition, room, and board, with only a few exceptions.
BL: One of Webber’s complaints — and it’s a complaint he shares with lots of college athletes in the revenue sports—is that he generated a lot of money for Michigan and he was not compensated for doing so. What kind of money are we talking about?
RB: Well I’ve seen some estimates that the Fab Five, which was the recruiting class that he was a part of in that 91-92 first season at Michigan generated several million dollars, as many as six million or more, just in terms of the boost they gave the program from previous years. But they also were part of a larger trend in college sports in which the broadcast rights of games are increasingly valuable particularly in men’s basketball and football.
BL: You’ve written that as early as next month a federal judge may change the landscape to which Webber and others have objected. Remind us of Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA and what next month’s decision could mean.
RB: Yes, Ed O’Bannon was a basketball player for UCLA around the time that Webber played at Michigan actually, and O’Bannon noticed some years later that his likeness and number were used in a video game that was licensed by the NCAA, as were the likenesses and numbers of many other college athletes. None of them got any money from that game, and this really irked O’Bannon, and as a result he decided to sue the NCAA to gain a portion of its revenues. And in fact he’s hoping that the suit will be broadened to include many current and former college athletes who he feels helped generate income, but they didn’t get any of it for themselves.
BL: If the O’Bannon case does end up becoming a class action suit, which is what he intends, how do you suppose the NCAA will respond?
RB: Well that really is the multi-billion dollar question, isn’t it? The reason why the class action status is so important is because it would involve so many more players and many, many more millions of dollars in potential damages to the NCAA. You can see the NCAA either paying out a very valuable settlement potentially or, who knows, it could be something even more extreme than that that would forever alter the way the NCAA operates.
BL: You have suggested the current system in which athletes like Chris Webber are not compensated has led to large amounts of money spent on facilities and coaches. Why have the universities done that?
RB: Well it’s simply because there’s a finite number of places where that money can go, right? So what’s happening is, as I mentioned earlier, that the rights fees for live broadcasts of games are absolutely skyrocketing in part because, you know, more and more people are watching things on Netflix, and as a result this has made sports, live sports viewing, tremendously popular because people will sit there and watch it as it happens and watch the commercials and subscribe to cable companies. And so that whole package has made the enterprise tremendously valuable.
BL: The NCAA is under fire for all sorts of reasons these days, including fouling up their own investigations in Florida with unethical conduct. I wonder, is the NCAA worried about its own future?
RB: Well that’s difficult to say. They’ve said very little in detail about the O’Bannon case or sort of its prospects for the case. Of course publicly the NCAA is fairly optimistic, but certainly this case, which started in 2009, has gotten much farther than similar initiatives against the NCAA, so I think you have to say it’s a serious threat.