Luke DeCock

DeCock: Player lawsuit looming over college athletics

No one wants to talk about it. Everyone is worried about it. The so-called O’Bannon lawsuit hung over the ACC’s football kickoff event like a dark cloud, just as it hangs over so much of college athletics at the moment.

The lawsuit by a group of former athletes suing the NCAA over the use of their likenesses in video games has already prompted change. The NCAA last week declared it would not renew its licensing agreement with EA Sports for its popular line of college football video games, a decision with little practical impact and considerable symbolic impact.

A settlement or judgment in favor of the former athletes would open the door to compensating athletes for the use of their identity in video games, or for jerseys sold with their number on them, and threaten the entire current model of college athletics, in which just about everyone but the athletes makes money hand over fist.

“Obviously it could have some implications, but who knows where it ends up,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “That’s something we’re going to have to keep our eye on and watch, and when the time comes and we know something definitive about it, if it does change the world as we know it, we got to have the sense to respond to it in a way that’s positive and good for college athletics.”

The NCAA is the target, but the impact would reach out into every aspect of collegiate sport, like the roots of a tree. That includes the ACC, and while Swofford wouldn’t entertain any speculation about what the effect might be on his conference, one of his counterparts wasn’t as reticent.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, speaking in Dallas on Monday, denounced the NCAA process and talked openly about the big-time football schools breaking away in their own division, claiming “unanimity” among his BCS-conference peers. A breakaway has been much whispered and debated, but this was a rare moment where someone in a position to make it happen endorsed the idea.

It all goes back to O’Bannon. That’s the fulcrum. Everyone is watching and waiting, from the bowls to the TV networks to the schools themselves, the powerful and the powerless alike.

“Everyone in college sports is obviously awaiting what may transpire,” said College Football Playoff chief operating officer Michael Kelly, a former ACC executive.

The lawsuit was recently expanded to include active players, including Clemson cornerback Darius Robinson, who was not in Greensboro. Maryland coach Randy Edsall said Monday that he was surprised more players hadn’t joined the lawsuit, but most athletes in Greensboro this weekend expressed a lack of interest or knowledge in the details of the lawsuit.

Not all of them, though. Wake Forest receiver Michael Campanaro said he doesn’t support paying athletes and took pains to point out how well the school takes care of its athletes.

But should there be a receiver for Wake Forest who stands 5 feet 11 and is rated with good hands and wears white gloves and has jersey No. 3 and light skin tone and is listed as a senior well, shouldn’t Michael Campanaro share in a little bit of the money everyone else is making off the virtual representation of Not Michael Campanaro?

“If it was just EA Sports dishing out a few hundred bucks to the players, they make so much money, every year when the game comes out, while you’re in the game for those three, four years, I don’t see a problem with that,” the actual Michael Campanaro said.

It’s not far away. No one wants to talk about it, but change is coming. The O’Bannon lawsuit may just be the beginning.