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NCAA May Drop ‘Student-Athlete’ Term To Protect Itself From Lawsuits

Ed O’Bannon, ex-UCLA, is suing NCAA for use of his image.

NCAA leaders privately have agonized over the growing use of athlete’s images in commercial products, with one senior executive proposing to drop the term “student-athlete” after a half century of official use, according to ESPN.

Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit from years ago against the NCAA for using his image initiated discover of a philosophical divide in depositions and strong emails unsealed this week. O’Bannon is joined by other players who challenge the NCAA’s licensing of their images to video games manufacturers and other third parties.

In one internal email sent after the lawsuit was filed in 2009, University of Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman wrote to then-Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe that he disagrees with the NCAA’s legal defense that it can sell publicity rights without any compensation to the players.

“This whole area of name and likeness and the NCAA is a disaster leading to catastrophe as far as I can tell,” wrote Perlman, a former member of the NCAA Board of Directors and law professor specializing in intellectual property. “I’m still trying to figure out by what authority the NCAA licenses these rights to the game makers and others. I looked at what our student athletes sign by way of waiver and it doesn’t come close.”

Objecting strongly to Perlman was Chris Plonsky, a longtime University of Texas administrator who oversees women’s sports for the Longhorns. She wrote that athletes “voluntarily” sign the standard release waiver that is required for participation in NCAA sports.

“We’re like a version of the Army,” Plonsky wrote. “We have certain things we have to do a certain way to raise funds and pay for the scholarships and other things s-a’s (student-athletes) and their parents expect.”

In a separate exchange, Wallace Renfro, NCAA senior policy advisor, wrote a memo to new president Mark Emmert after Emmert was hired to run the organization in 2010. Lawyers for the plaintiffs cited the memo, an analysis of issues confronting the NCAA titled “Looking Forward,” in a deposition of Renfro on June 26.

“Maybe we don’t call them student-athletes any longer and just refer to them as students,” Renfro wrote.

In the email to Emmert, Renfro, who has worked at the NCAA since the 1970s, notes that the term student-athlete is one “that Walter Byers created to counter the criticism that we are paying college athletes when we began providing grants-in-aid.” Byers was the first executive director of the NCAA, retiring in 1988 after 37 years, and a grant-in-aid is the term of art used by the NCAA to describe an athletic scholarship.

The lawsuit claims the NCAA violates anti-trust laws by preventing universities from allowing athletes to be compensated above the value of a grant-in aid  room, board, books and fees. The discovery submitted to the court represents a small fraction of the documents collected in what has become a landmark test of the NCAA’s governance and notions about college athletes.

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