O’Bannon ruling a huge win for athletes, another hit for UConn

Rudy Gay, Jim Calhoun and Ray Allen (AP)

Rudy Gay, Jim Calhoun and Ray Allen (AP)

You wonder how much basketball money was on the court at Mohegan Sun Friday night.

I counted $473 million in career earnings — and that was just in the front row of the group photo. From left to right: Ben Gordon, Rudy Gay, Donyell Marshall, Charlie Villanueva, Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond.

This landmark ruling in the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit is for them, because each of their jerseys sold like crazy in Connecticut and they appeared on ESPN too many times to count. Yet it’s not really for them, you’ll say, because what’s another $20,000 to Ray Allen? It’s $20,000 he earned, and the next Ray Allen can cash in his college chips and claim his earnings.

It’s what’s fair. It’s what the NCAA has refused to acknowledge for decades.

Per Friday’s decision, which will of course be challenged in court, the NCAA cannot make rules banning schools from creating trusts for athletes using money generated from the sale of name, image and likeness rights. That money, to be collected after the athlete’s eligibility expires, can be capped at no less than $5,000 for every year the athlete remains academically eligible.

The caveat: “Schools may offer lower amounts of deferred compensation if they choose,” U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken wrote, “but may not unlawfully conspire with each other in setting these amounts.”

So lower-resource schools could offer $2,000 per year to its football and men’s basketball players while schools in the Big 10 pay $5,000. This hardly changes the playing field because lower-resources schools are not and never have been competing for recruits with Big 10 or SEC programs. It simply creates competition among the elite: If the Big 10, which is projected to soon distribute $44.5 million annually to its members, wants to gain a competitive advantage over everyone, like the ACC and Big 12, it can set its NIL payout to $8,000 annually.

AJ Price (AP)

AJ Price (AP)

If this stands, the biggest losers, once again, are the fringe schools, the UConns and Cincinnatis in the conferences with weak TV deals that can’t possibly support trust funds that’ll equal those of the Power Five leagues. This is the most powerful reminder yet: The AAC is a death sentence for UConn. Big money will win in the long run. Big money will beat the Huskies and any spirit and will and toughness. It’s unfortunate as it is undeniable.

The plausible escape routes: If AAC football goes wild within the next few years, perhaps it can earn a TV contract that would enable it to keep pace (between projected cost of attendance and NLI rights, we’re talking $30,000 to $40,000 for each athlete). Seems highly unlikely.

Perhaps the current AAC isn’t the answer. A nationwide league of UConn, Cincinnati, Boise State, BYU, Memphis, UCF, USF, and the Naval academics for football would seemed better positioned to command a competitive TV deal.

Perhaps UConn will choose to stay dominant in basketball — it would only be funding the costs of 12 scholarship players for men and women — and it’ll abandon its pursuit of big-time football, a sport with 100 athletes. Seems unlikely, too.

But eventually the question may need to be asked: Wouldn’t it be stupid to let basketball, the staple sport in Connecticut, be put at an extreme disadvantage when it has a championship coach, a championship history and state-of-the-art facilities already in place?

Can basketball financially support itself in this new landscape without football? Not sure.

If this stands, the biggest winners are the fringe athletes, not the Ray Allens, but the Khalid El-Amins and the Rashad Andersons and the guys who made overseas money, but never made the out-of-this-world NBA money. The winners are  the high-major athletes who never carve out professional careers and are left, sometimes, with generic sociology degrees and no relevant work experience.

I’ve made the point before, and I will hammer at it further. I do not believe college athletics are broken. The system works brilliantly for mid-level athletes with no dreams of going pro and priorities that include both sports and school. They graduate debt-free. It’s great.

The system works brilliantly for the tiny percentage of sure-fire pros. They hone their skills in college so they’re better prepared to earn long-term contracts in the big leagues.

The system does not work for athletes with a reasonable chance to go pro, with little preparedness for the college classroom (a separate non-NCAA issue) and with little incentive to allocate significant time to school because such action would decrease their likelihood of making the pros. There is no pie chart that labels each athlete, but I suspect this is not a tiny percentage of college football and basketball players. I suspect many are set up to fail with the current system.

I’ll always come back to former UConn running back Andre Dixon. He’s a perfect example. Didn’t come from a great educational background. Admittedly didn’t invest much in school. Saw his jersey sold all over Connecticut, saw his face all over TV and didn’t see a dollar from it. Didn’t make the pros.

I wrote about Dixon a few months back. I remember him recounting his college recruitment. His first offer was from North Carolina. He had Kentucky, too. He chose UConn largely because it was closest to his New Jersey home and all other factors were equal.

That was in 2005. Friday’s ruling will take effect for athletes recruited in the class of 2016. North Carolina and Kentucky may soon be offering stipends, lifetime scholarships and NIL cash.

So where’s the next Andre Dixon going?

How about the next Ray Allen or Khalid El-Amin?

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy