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NCAA faces change, legal challenges in months ahead

By Steve Almasy, CNN
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
  • Legal challenges highlight issue of compensation for college athletes
  • New NCAA rule could mean unlimited meals for Division I school athletes
  • NCAA contends that athletes are paid in the form of a free education
  • Northwestern appealing labor board ruling that its football players can unionize

(CNN) -- When training camps for big-time college football teams open in August, behemoth linemen and other players will get their first taste of new rules regarding how much food Division I schools can provide their athletes.

In short, as much as they want.

That's assuming a proposal that came out of the NCAA legislative council this week gets approved, as expected, by the Division I board of directors.

It's a small change in benefits -- as of last season, athletes could receive three meals a day -- but not a sea change that could lead to players getting paid.

Many athletes in the revenue sports think they should get a piece of the pie. Right now, executives get paid, coaches get paid, the referees get paid, the announcers get paid, the people who sell souvenir merchandise get paid -- but the players don't.

Many athletes get a one-year scholarship (almost always renewed during all four years of eligibility) that covers tuition, books, room and board and related fees. Other football and basketball players walk on and receive nothing. Next year, they will be included in the unlimited meals, the NCAA says.

NCAA approves new food regulations
NCAA offers athletes 'all-you-can-eat'

But no pay for play, no salary for the at least 20 hours of work per week during the season. That's something many football and basketball players want to see change.

University of Connecticut basketball player Shabazz Napier expressed as much at the Final Four men's basketball tournament a few weeks ago, when he made controversial comments about going to bed starving.

While many fans focused on his comment "There are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," he also talked about others profiting off merchandise he helped make popular.

"When you see your jersey getting sold -- it may not have your last name on it -- but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return," he added.

It's that sentiment that prompted former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon to join with 20 other plaintiffs -- each of whom will file his own lawsuit -- against the NCAA for what they claim is the unlawful use of their likenesses in video games and other media. The current and former players have already settled a suit with one popular video game maker.

O'Bannon's antitrust case is scheduled to begin in a federal courtroom on June 9, according to Sports Illustrated, which says the entire business model for major college athletics could change. Billions are at stake, says The Wall Street Journal.

"I'm not going to ruin college sports. College sports is changing. The rules need to change," O'Bannon has said.

The NCAA contends that athletes are paid in the form of a free education, something that holds a lot of value both immediately and in the future. Athletes also get team-issued shoes and other athletic gear. But they are not allowed to sell them.

Throw in paid travel, free coaching and free medical aid, and many sports fans think that's a pretty good deal.

A poll conducted last year by Marist College Center for Sports Communication showed that about two-thirds of fans of college football and college basketball agreed that a scholarship for top players was sufficient.

Still, the number of legal challenges for the NCAA seems to be on the rise.

In March, the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University -- a private school that fields teams in the Big Ten conference -- can unionize, deeming them school employees.

Players are set to take their union vote on April 25.

The players at Northwestern say they want better medical coverage, concussion testing, four-year scholarships that cover the entire cost of attendance, and the possibility of being paid. They're led by former quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, founder of the National College Players Association and the College Athletes Players Association.

The NLRB ruled that Northwestern football players should be considered employees because of the hours they put in, the control the university has over them and the revenue they generate.

Northwestern is appealing the ruling to the national NLRB, maintaining that players are not university employees but "students, first and foremost."

NCAA President Mark Emmert has called the idea of unionized collegiate sports teams "grossly inappropriate."

"It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics," he said.

The labor board's ruling only applies to Northwestern for now. So state lawmakers in Connecticut and Ohio are taking steps -- albeit opposite ones -- to address the issue at public colleges in their states.

An Ohio measure approved recently says players "are not public employees based upon participating in athletics for the state university."

But in Connecticut, state Rep. Matthew Lesser and other lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow athletes at the University of Connecticut to unionize, Lesser said after Napier made his "no money for food" comments.

"He says he's going to bed hungry at a time when millions of dollars are being made off of him. It's obscene," Lesser said. "This isn't a Connecticut problem. This is an NCAA problem, and I want to make sure we're putting pressure on them to treat athletes well."

There is one other important legal matter that cuts right to the heart of the decades-old question whether college athletes should be paid or receive a stipend.

Four college athletes, represented by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, filed a class-action lawsuit in March -- just as the NCAA basketball tournament was set to begin -- against the NCAA accusing it of "illegally restraining competition for the services of players."

In layman's terms, the lawsuit argues college athletes should be paid and aims to end the old notion of amateurism in college sports. It would give a university the option of paying the players it wants most. It also calls for individual damages for the player plaintiffs.

Kessler represents Clemson University football player Martin Jenkins; Rutgers University basketball player J.J. Moore; University of California football player Bill Tyndall, who played his senior season in 2013; and University of Texas-El Paso football player Kevin Perry, who also played basketball for the Miners in 2011 and 2012.

While only four plaintiffs are named, the class-action suit proposes representing all Football Bowl Subdivision players and all Division I basketball players.

In addition to the NCAA, the lawsuit -- which the National College Players Association is backing -- also targets the so-called "power conferences": the Southeastern, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Atlantic Coast.

"What we are saying is that it is fundamentally unfair for there to be rules that prevent athletes who create all of this" from being paid, said Kessler, who has experience in suing sports leagues.

CNN's Sara Ganim and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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