Dave Hickman: Luck keeps an eye on O’Bannon court case

MORGANTOWN — If you’re like me, the Ed O’Bannon proceedings in Oakland give you an offensive lineman-sized headache. At just about the time you think you’ve figured out the direction the plaintiffs and the NCAA are going, they veer off into another one.

Then again, if you’re like Oliver Luck, you relish in the accounts.

“For a lawyer it’s a pretty interesting case,’’ said Luck, who in fact is one, in addition to being West Virginia’s athletic director. “Anti-trust cases are always that way just because of the nature of anti-trust laws.’’

But beyond the aspect of the trial as a spectator sport — and if you’re scoring at home, the O’Bannon side is way ahead right now, but the NCAA hasn’t even come to bat, so take that for what it’s worth — there exists the very real probability that when it ends college athletes are going to come out as huge winners.

That’s a given, of course. Unless you’ve lived in a cave for the past few months, you already know that Division I athletes, at least those at the universities competing in the five major conferences, are in for a bit of a windfall. The handwriting is on the wall — and at least in the NCAA rule books in pencil form — for stipends to address the full cost of tuition, meals not currently covered by scholarships, post-school medical benefits and a handful of other amenities.

All of it is in response to the O’Bannon litigation and others like it that have put the NCAA in both an aggressive stance and a defensive posture — actively trying to correct the ills for which it is being sued in an effort to stave off more suits and mitigate the potential damage from those ongoing actions.

The most notable additional change that could come from the O’Bannon suit, though, has yet to be addressed by the NCAA. There stands the very real possibility that by as soon as next month, if U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken rules in favor of O’Bannon, that college athletes will be at a car dealership or a ribbon-cutting near you, and being paid to do so.

“It’s neither good nor bad. It just is,’’ Luck said when asked his thoughts on the possibility that student-athletes might well be allowed to make a buck off of their name or image. “Every industry has to change with the times. College athletics is no different.’’

The truth is, even before an O’Bannon opinion is issued, colleges across the land have been trying to get up to speed. When the Big 12 presidents and athletic directors met a few weeks ago, the majority of their time was spent discussing what the new landscape would look like and how they would react to it. It’s not just the athletes-as-pitchmen angle, but also what to do about the stipends and the meals and all of the things that seem guaranteed to change regardless of what happens with O’Bannon.

As for the pitchman issue, Luck thinks he has a pretty good idea of what the landscape could look like and how WVU would react to it, although until Wilken hands down a ruling it is all speculation.

Could Juwan Staten be making paid personal appearances at your local sporting goods store, maybe signing autographs on his own at the mall for $10 a pop?

Could Clint Trickett be hawking his favorite duck call?

“Why not?’’ Luck asked.

Those athletes wouldn’t be without regulation. Luck thinks the school could prohibit its athletes from, say, promoting their favorite beer or strip club. They also wouldn’t be able to wear the flying WV or any of the other trademarked items the university owns, perhaps including jerseys or other school-issued attire.

“They don’t own that,’’ Luck said.

Luck also envisions cooperating and joining with West Virginia’s student-athletes in promotions. For instance, the school’s many sponsorship partners would certainly love to have athletes appear at business functions or make commercials. None of that is now permitted.

Were that to change, Luck suggests perhaps picking 10 athletes each school year to do those promotions. The athletes would sign on as official representatives of the school and would be paid for their services. In turn, any proceeds the school collected would be used to pay not only those athletes, but others, as well.

But the details of that plan — or any, for that matter — are sketchy because until a ruling is handed down and until the NCAA responds, it’s all speculation.

What Luck doesn’t want to see is lawlessness — players free to negotiate deals with the highest bidders, without any regulation. In that case, the potential for athletes being victimized increases and opens up another old can of worms.

“You worry about out-of-control boosters,’’ Luck said. “And agents will surely inject themselves into it.’’

Of course, any system in which athletes are being paid raises obvious questions about recruiting advantages. If Texas and Ohio State are paying a certain amount to athletes to represent their school — or if their individual opportunities for profit are far greater — does that put West Virginia and others in smaller markets at a disadvantage?

Sure it does. But a similar question also exists in the current proposal to pay athletes a cost-of-living stipend, where the cost of living at one school might be dramatically different than the cost at another.

The O’Bannon trial seems to be crawling along at a snail’s pace, witness after witness. Already in its second week, the trial could last three given that the NCAA won’t even begin presenting its side until today, save for cross-examination of plaintiff witnesses.

Luck, though, thinks the judge has the proceedings going at light speed and thinks that after the trial ends she could rule quickly, perhaps early to mid-July.

If that’s the case, things could begin changing almost right away.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

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