MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Let us remember for a moment that while West Virginia was left out of the first waves of conference realignment, the Mountaineers have never lacked an understanding of the way the landscape changes around and beneath them.
You’ll remember that in March of 2010, as WVU was shining at Madison Square Garden on the way to the school’s only Big East men’s basketball tournament championship, Bill Stewart popped up on a Parkersburg television station and predicted the demise of the Big East.
The Big Ten was poised to pounce and the late Mountaineers football coach said that league “could affect us” and might “pick a couple of our teams.”
“However,” he said, “the SEC and the ACC will also do the same, so that’s exciting. I don’t know where we’re going to land. We could land, whatever, in one of maybe three conferences — the ACC, the SEC, maybe the Big Ten.”
That went over about as well as a Red Sox billboard at Penn Station, but what no one wanted to admit in the moment or even in retrospect was that Stewart was only guilty of bad timing. His words? Well, he was onto something, wasn’t he? He knew it, too.
“The deal is all I tried to do was say, ‘Let’s be proactive rather than reactive.’ That’s all I meant,” he told me once.
A while later, Dana Holgorsen was preparing for his third season as the football coach and he, too, had tried to take the pulse of the NCAA. He’d heard the conference commissioners talking about a fifth division of schools and a way to give the most prosperous institutions more freedom or leverage or influence at the expense of those not as affluent. That way the well-off ones could give their players the things they earn and deserve and the big schools wouldn’t be outvoted by a majority that doesn’t have as much or won’t spend as much money.
“The major conferences breaking away from schools like East Carolina and Marshall, I think that’s got some legs to it, but whether it happens or if I’ll still be coaching when it does happen, I don’t know,” Holgorsen said last year. “I hope it happens because they’re the ones holding us back from being able to feed our players three times a day or from being able to pay them just a small stipend to make their lives a little bit easier so they’re not starving to death at specific times of the year.”
Uh, he was onto something too, wasn’t he? The 65 schools in the five main conferences are only the passing of time away from having autonomy from the rest of Division I and from being able to provide student-athletes like never before, a step that should include unlimited meals.
Maybe, if you allow yourself to consider such a possibility, those guys knew a thing or two about their profession. And maybe we ought to be paying attention right now. WVU is going to meet very soon to make sure it’s prepared for what seems like inevitable changes to the definition of the student-athlete.
The NCAA and former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon are in federal court right now. The seismic case started last week. The judge plans for about 75 hours of courtroom time. The end is near and WVU and other universities might have a problem drop into their laps really soon. It’s a bench trial and not a jury trial, which means Judge Claudia Wilken, who’s been asking a lot of pointed questions during the case, will adjudicate on her own. She could rule very quickly and she could, among a list of issues, grant student-athletes the privilege of marketing their likenesses.
In fact, there’s an extraordinarily strong chance that’s going to happen because the NCAA and EA Sports have separately settled with other plaintiffs for a combined $60 million because EA’s college football franchise profited off player likenesses for many years.
So let’s just assume Wilken stays in line and agrees that, yes, players ought to have control over their name and image. Certainly the NCAA would appeal the ruling, but Wilken’s ruling would remain in place throughout the appeal process. Student-athletes would be able to make money off their existence.
You could see Clint Trickett designing and selling his own bobblehead. Juwan Staten could charge $10 for autographs at the Fishbowl. Bria Holmes would be allowed to be paid and advertised as the host for a party at a club on High Street. Really, just about anyone could do just about anything to make a buck off of who he is or what sport she plays.
And that’s why WVU’s athletic department leaders are supposed to meet this week. They have to get a handle on what to do if or when Wilken rules in favor of the plaintiffs. There’s a fear of lawlessness until a structure is in place. There’s a responsibility for schools to make this work for their student-athletes. The smart schools are getting out in front of this.
It’s likely most student-athletes will opt for collective supervision and a group licensing agreement that schools would negotiate so players could share the income by way of a stipend, similar to what exists in professional leagues.
That way a player as good as women’s soccer star Kadeisha Buchanan, who was deemed last week by her coach to be good enough to be one of the best to ever play her position, isn’t shut out just because she plays a small sport. Many others would benefit from what football star Karl Joseph could do with his name.
Players could be in commercials and in print advertisements. They could be spokespersons and endorsers. In a small town like this one where the sports and the stars are so tightly woven into the identity of the environment, there are sure to be opportunities, and WVU is making sure it’s once again ahead of the curve as the NCAA changes.