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Sports Columns

April 2, 2014

Mark Cuban's pork predictions also apply to NCAA

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and a hugely successful entrepreneur, spoke out recently about the National Football League's desire to expand its mid-week TV broadcasts.

He summed up the idea in a word: Greedy.

“Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” he said, warning that the NFL’s vast empire could implode in the next 10 years if it continues thinking that bigger is better.

“I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No.1 of business.”

Cuban’s comments were inflammatory but not meritless. Time will tell whether he's right about the NFL overexposing its product. But I caught myself reflecting on his observation when news broke that a small group of football players at Northwestern University had won the right to unionize, if they wish.

A ruling by the director of the National Labor Relations Board's office in Chicago has college officials buzzing – and worried.

It was an early-round victory in a battle sure to carry on for a long time. There will be further hearings and appeals, and the Supreme Court or Congress will probably be the final arbiter. But any decree will have a far-reaching impact on college sports.

The Northwestern case hinges on whether the football players are truly “student athletes” or employees of the university, and if their on-field efforts lead to a significant amount of money that benefits Northwestern.

A close reading of the ruling is enjoyable for those who like to examine legal briefs. In the end, it turns on two  questions: Is someone profiting, and if so to what degree?

Historically college players benefitted from a plan that provided them tuition, the cost of room and board, plus some incidental money for books. In turn, colleges sold tickets to games and reaped other revenue from playing in bowl games. The system seemed to work for everyone.

Things changed as television opportunities grew, marketing niches were created, and colleges raked in huge amounts of new income. Salaries for coaches and athletic directors skyrocketed.

Then the day came when those playing the games and attracting the crowds asked, “What about us? Where’s our fair cut?”

The sport that was once a collegiate pastime evolved into a big business where those most responsible for providing entertainment – the players – don't share in rewards at a level commensurate with their contribution.

The financial stakes continue to grow.

How will this end? The legal fight, now waged on several fronts, could continue until someone wins, or the sides could work out a solution that's agreeable to both.

That would seem reasonable but require a major break from how business has been conducted for decades. Athletes have never had a seat at the table. Tradition holds that they're always left out of the talks.

What’s different now is that athletes are gaining leverage, not just legally but in the realm of public opinion.

The NCAA, major conferences and universities have other legal worries. Ed O’Bannon’s class-action, anti-trust lawsuit over the use of his likeness and those of other athletes is proceeding.

The NCAA and its member institutions can ill afford to lose this high-stakes game. Compromise is possible, although difficult.

The alternative is for college officials to dismiss Cuban’s caution - “Pigs get fact, hogs get slaughtered" - and live with the consequences of being greedy.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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