College basketball analyst Jay Bilas drew national attention Tuesday for exposing the latest example of the NCAA's hypocrisy. The embattled governing body of college sports claimed in recent court filings that it does not sell specific player jerseys and thus profit off of an athletes likeness—allegedly those jerseys are just generic representations of their respective schools.
Bilas blew apart that theory by demonstrating that you can enter a player's name into the search function for NCAA's online store and find replicas of the jersey he wears. For example, a search for Mason Plumlee leads to a screen full of Duke No. 5 jerseys and shirts. The same phenomenon occurs when searching for other prominent athletes, like Johnny Manziel, Nerlens Noel and many more.
Bilas's exposé comes at a particularly critical time for the NCAA, as the organization is dealing with a federal antitrust lawsuit that challenges its right to profit of an athlete's likeness and facing a potential investigation into allegations that Manziel, the Texas A&M quarterback, profited from selling his signature to multiple autograph dealers. Bilas spoke with the N&O about the above topics and the NCAA in general.
That was quite the Twitter sensation you had yesterday.
I didn’t intend for any of that stuff to happen. I just went to the site and tweeted about it when I saw it. Truth be told, what made it an issue wasn’t necessarily the points that were being made, it was as soon as the NCAA or whoever is running their site shut the search capability down.
Were you surprised you reacted as quickly as they did?
I was. I didn’t understand why they would do that because of the message it may send. I don’t know why they did it. But on the heels of having said what they said in court earlier this week in court filings in the O’Bannon case, that the jerseys are not of the players, they’re of the school, the school’s property that doesn’t represent the player, I knew that wasn’t true. This kind of thing pointed it out in a pretty stark fashion how ridiculous that statement is.
Did you just have some time on your hands and were looking around the NCAA’s website and decided to check out the search options? Is that how it came about?
No, what happened was I had gotten a message from somebody that included a screen grab. I had said something about (Johnny) Manziel and his jersey, so they sent me a screen grab of that site of a Manziel jersey that had Texas A&M and 2 on the front and then a big number 2 and football on the back where a player’s name would usually be.
And that really caught my attention. It was pretty clear that they’re using his likeness and image without his consent. And I just happened to catch in the upper right hand corner, I saw that Manziel was in the search box. I thought, ‘that can’t be. You can’t search by name and come up with that.’ And I tried it myself, and it came up. I tried (Jadeveon) Clowney, and it came up. I tried A.J. McCarron, and all these came up. It was unbelievable.
Honestly, I was really surprised. It has never occurred to me to search by player name. I always knew that when you went to Alabama’s page that No. 10 was A.J. McCarron. Or you go to Indiana’s page, and No. 40 for basketball is Cody Zeller. You’d have to be awfully naïve to believe that people in the last 12 months have been buying Calbert Cheaney jerseys. I’ve always known that, but I just didn’t think that it would be so brazen or callous, that they would do that.
Listen, it’s perfect business sense. It’s smart business. Never once have I complained about the amount of money the NCAA makes. They should make all they can. It’s great that Mark Emmert makes $2 million a year. More power to him, the more he makes, the more everybody else makes. That’s great. It’s big business.
The problem I have with it is the rhetoric that they use and the fact that everybody in the sport, at every level, is getting compensated at market rate, and while they’re doing that they’re restricting the revenue drivers, the players themselves, from taking more than accepted.
You’re a trained lawyer, what are your thoughts on the O’Bannon case and what it could end up meaning? [Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, along with a few current student-athletes, is taking the NCAA to federal court in attempts to receive compensation for the organization profiting off their likeness in perpetuity.]
First of all, I would prefer that the NCAA make changes in policy because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t like that fact that we’re having to go through this litigation. It puts a lot of people in a bad position. It puts a lot of NCAA people in a bad position of having to justify policies that, in my opinion, are unjustifiable. Just like in that filing, when they made the argument that those jerseys are not representative of players, that’s clearly not true. And how somebody within the NCAA structure could sign off on that, because you’re essentially signing off on that under oath, it’s crazy. It makes everybody look bad.
Do I think that the O’Bannon plaintiffs are right? I tend to believe they are, yeah.
But the courts over the years have given great deference to the NCAA because of this idea that it’s an educational pursuit and sports are an integral part of education. I don’t agree with that, either, but courts have deferred to that. I’m not sure how much longer, given the commercial model as the money is continuing to rise, the courts are going to continue to buy that. You don’t know.
So, who knows who is going to win. I don’t know who is going to win. All I know is the tension between the amateurism model and the commercialized model, the NCAA likes to imply that they’re two separate things, but it’s the same game. It’s the same business. But the tension is going to continue to grow. As the money grows and the players stay at zero, the tension is going to grow.
My guess is that, if we really look into this autograph thing, Johnny Manziel is not the only one those guys got autographs from. We’re going to see a bunch of players in that, and we’re always going to see that.
Yeah, I’ve seen where they have a fair amount of Clowney stuff. But do you think that athletes should be able to profit from signing stuff for these guys?
I do. I don’t think that they should be restricted from doing it. When you restrict someone from operating in the same market that everybody else operates in, it needs to be within reason, and we don’t have good reason. There’s no reason for it.
If you don’t want to pay and provide them with compensation outside of the scholarship, they should at least be able to benefit outside the university. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to have autograph signings, do commercials, make appearances, to benefit off their names and likenesses. No other student is told they can’t do that, not even students on scholarship.
One last question for you. As a former student-athlete yourself, have you ever thought about joining in with the O’Bannon plaintiffs?
No, I don’t think I would, primarily because with my job, I think I’d rather stay on the outside.
If I thought the NCAA was right, I’d say so. I supported initiatives of the NCAA in the past. And I support the people. The people in the NCAA office are great. They really are. They’re trying their best. They’re working under a very difficult system that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and they’re having to justify the unjustifiable. But I’ve never had a bad interaction with somebody at the NCAA office. The folks at member institutions are all good people trying their best, it’s just that they don’t have a reasonable shot with the way this is going.
This is big business, and we’re pretending like it’s amateur golf or something.