Wiedmer: Time for athletes to quit masquerading as students

Wiedmer: Time for athletes to quit masquerading as students

June 11th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Ed O'Bannon

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

When it comes to former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon's antitrust suit against the NCAA, everyone wants to blame the adults.

It's the fault of the greedy NCAA for making all that television money at the expense of these, um, student-athletes. It's the fault of the greedy coaches for making all those contract and endorsement dollars off the performances of the, um, student-athletes. It's the fault of the selfish schools for not pushing the, um, student-athletes toward degrees with promising futures rather than class loads that merely kept them eligible for competition.

And all those arguments are valid. Hugely so. But could it also not be at least a little bit the fault of the, um, student-athletes and those closest to them for not emphasizing the importance of a college degree?

Are we all so naive as to believe there's no chance that the, um, student-athletes are, at times, scamming the system as much as it is using them?

Consider, for a moment, O'Bannon's testimony Monday during the first day of the trial:

In discussing his academic performance while playing basketball for the Bruins, he said, "I was an athlete masquerading as a student. I was there strictly to play basketball. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play."

O'Bannon wasn't saying this is what UCLA asked him to do. This was his choice. He said his goal at UCLA wasn't to get a degree but merely to impress the NBA into drafting him as soon as possible. He intended to call Westwood home for only two years.

But a knee injury just before the start of his freshman year forced him to stay in school for five years. He led the Bruins to their 11th NCAA title at the close of his senior season, was drafted by the New Jersey Nets with the ninth overall pick and wound up playing professional basketball for nine years, though only two in the NBA due to his balky knee. Now 41, O'Bannon sells cars in Las Vegas.

And there's nothing wrong with that career path. His NBA contract was worth more than $3 million. He made as much as $400,000 a season during part of his European career. Unless Evander Holyfield or Vince Young has been managing his money, O'Bannon should be financially secure.

But that doesn't mean he couldn't have been better off had he made full use of his scholarship. There are lots of reasons why 78 percent of NFL veterans are bankrupt within five years of retirement, but one of them is ignorance regarding money. A business degree might help. Or an undergrad course load worthy of law school.

'Tis said that youth is wasted on the young and all those young people who receive athletic scholarships but waste them chasing professional sports riches rather than earning desirable degrees are proving that assumption valid year after year.

This is not to say O'Bannon and his 19 co-plaintiffs don't deserve to win these lawsuits over the use of their likenesses for financial profit. They've already settled two of them for a total of $60 million. But most of those participating in those suits won't walk away with more than $15,000 apiece after the lawyers get their cuts. Anyone believing that paying collegiate athletes will allow them to drive BMWs and own second homes in the Caribbean is dreaming.

By far the best way to achieve those riches is through a college degree that delivers more than eligibility. Young people should know that because their parents or guardians should hammer that home nightly -- along with their guidance counselors at both the high school and collegiate levels.

As former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach John Shulman always told his players: "You use basketball. Don't let basketball use you."

The schools long ago proved adept at using many of these athletes. But the best way for the athletes to use the schools and the NCAA isn't by merely draining them of a few thousand dollars per athlete in a court of law.

The best way is to use the scholarships they were given to earn diplomas capable of producing hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions more than those settlements, through productive, long-term careers.

Though it was a somewhat self-serving statement, former Alabama basketball coach Wimp Sanderson once replied to a question concerning what percentage of his players graduated: "Every single one that wanted to. I haven't stopped one yet."

Until these athletes stop masquerading as students and start earning meaningful degrees with their scholarships, all the legal victories in the world aren't going to change their financial lives permanently for the better.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com