Legal Challenges to Cause Changes in “Farm Systems”

(St. John, Newfoundland) — The National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League commissioners presumably are aware that there might be a significant change in sports “farm systems” and that change may be coming far sooner than any of them, the NFL’s Roger Goodell, the NBA’s Adam Silver and the NHL’s Gary Bettman may realize. Major League Baseball may be in better shape because the sport has a farm system and doesn’t rely on college players exclusively to fill jobs.

Within a few years, the “farm system,” whether it is college/university sports or Canadian junior hockey, may be vastly different because of legal challenges and attempts to unionize.

The NCAA or the National Collegiate Athletic Association was beaten in court by a former college basketball player named Ed O’Bannon and others who realized that the biggest college sports governing group in the United States was still using the “student-athlete” concept on them in keeping all revenues generated from various streams former players likenesses under NCAA rules despite not being in colleges for decades.

The NCAA and the colleges and universities that make up the group will not be able to do that anymore if various courts rule against them in an appeal.
The O’Bannon suit will not be the last against the NCAA. In fact it may be the first and might unleash a torrent of suits ranging from attorney Jeffrey Kessler’s try and getting college players far market compensation to a civil suit like the one filed by former National Football League players over health issues from injuries sustained during college sports.

The NCAA is gearing up to fight the National Labor Relations Board and try to overturn a local NLRB ruling that Northwestern University football players have the right to vote and decide if they want to form a union. The Northwestern players ruling has caused some adults to get very upset in Columbus, Ohio where the local statehouses have decided that Ohio State football players are not school or state employees and should not unionize. The politicians who should be protecting the players have opted to protect the NCAA in Ohio. But then again, the Ohio State football franchise is more valuable than the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals because the program is bigger than life.

The NCAA has always sold the line about “student-athletes” and how education is of primary importance but the NCAA now through the group’s President Mark Emmert is whistling a new tune. The business model which has been successful, give players a scholarship in lieu of pay and let everyone else feast at the lunchroom with the show performers who generate billions in media, sponsorship , licensing and ticket sales getting the year-to-year scholarship which can be revoked at any time.

Judge Claudia Wilken had not changed the business model but her ruling on the O’Bannon case has clearly jolted the NCAA. Justice Wilken though has signaled to others that the cartel, the NCAA, has an Achilles heel. This is not to suggest the NCAA will be under legal siege but the college sports custodians, the presidents, the chancellors, the provosts, the board of trustees know it is no longer business as usual.

If that business model changes, then schools (most colleges and universities claim that sports is a loss leader but according to Emmert is the glue that holds campuses together may break and end the autumn Saturday rituals of college football or men’s basketball March Madness) may have to rethink their sports commitments. But there are thousands of colleges in the United States and just a tiny fraction are involved in big time sports so Emmert should rethink his glue comment. The glue comment isn’t the first time Emmert sounded foolish. Just look at what happened when he announced Penn State sanctions in August 2012. “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating,” said Emmert was uttering his remarks, other big time college football programs were laying low until they got clearance to raid the Penn State football team. As soon as the words left his mouth schools were poaching Peen State players.

But Emmert and the college and university presidents, chancellors, provosts, board of trustees know this, any changes to the business model may mean less money for everyone except the players and Emmert and his colleagues are going to fight hard to keep the gravy train going.

With all due respect to K-12 physical education teachers, many NCAA coaches are gloried gym teachers who make millions of dollars running an operation that is supposed to be amateur sports.

That business model change could wipe out many college football programs although it seems that the big time football factories are like the earth’s plates, drifting apart although more than at the rate of an inch a year. The football factors number 65, although many more schools field “big time” football teams. If the economics do not make sense, the others may fall by the waste side leaving a much smaller number of players participating in college football and for the NFL that means a smaller pool of talent available for them ready to join the league.

The NFL gets more or less finished products from the college system which stocks the league. The NFL brain trust also knows that football participation among children from six to 17 is diminishing because of the potential of catastrophic injuries associated with the game. The NFL is impacted by what goes on at the college and university level. It is the league’s free research and development grounds although league officials would probably argue that the individual teams spend millions annually analyzing college players and projecting them as future NFL players.

Colleges and universities may have a bit of an easier time keeping basketball going. It is far less expensive than football with TV and broadband monies generated along with sponsorship probably enough to keep most programs going. Still, if players are entitled to a fair share of the money available, some college presidents, chancellors, provosts or board of trustees may decide it wasn’t worth the effort and shut down programs. At one time the City College of New York and New York University were big time college basketball programs, a betting scandal killed the CCNY program in the 1950s and NYU decided in the 1960s that fielding a big time college program wasn’t worth the effort.

North of the American border, Canadian junior hockey is facing a major problem. There is talk and there may be another effort to unionize the teenager athletes who play in the major top junior leagues in Quebec, Ontario and in Western Canada and the US. The teenagers are pros in training and get a stipend while living with billets as they try and advance in the hockey world.
There is also an NCAA angle in all of this. Canadian and some American hockey players seem to have to make a choice, play big time junior hockey at the highest level in North America or stay in a lower level league until they graduate high school to protect their NCAA rights. Emmert’s group doesn’t want a 17 year old that has been tainted by a stipend. American teenagers who decide not to go to Canada or play for the handful of American teams in the Canadian juniors can play junior hockey with United States Hockey League teams throughout the Midwest and keep their NCAA eligibility.

Junior hockey is not easy in western Canada in terms of travel as there are very long bus rides and a hectic schedule. It seems a bit easier in Ontario and Quebec. The players are encouraged to also keep up with high school studies while enduring those long bus rides.

The farm system has worked well for the NHL, NBA and NHL. But changes are coming and while the professionals have little to do with the operations or colleges/universities and junior operations, there is a significant impact on professional sports. The pros would have to absorb the cost of developing players should college/university sports and Canadian Junior hockey changes and that is something that Goodell, Silver and Bettman do not want to see.

Evan Weiner can be reached at His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available ( ) and his e-books, America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century, ( ), From Peach Baskets to Dance Halls and the Not-so-Stern NBA ( ) and the reissue of the 2005 book, The Business and Politics of Sports ( and reissue of the 2010 e-book The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition ( ) are available from e-book distributors globally. 2014 e-book, sports business 2010-14( ). The e-books are available from e-book distributors globally.