Today’s Lunch Links entertainment is brought to you by the NCAA, the governing body of college sports, whose continued deflection of controversy swirling around its inane regulation of its athletes, its exploitation of their talents for its own financial gain, and its Al Haig -like management style has now garnered mainstream attention.
Two signs this past week that public sentiment now tilts in favor of the athletes:
Once upon a time the public was largely appalled at allegations that “student-athletes” received money and other benefits from outside sources. But a report  out late last week that an agent paid former UNC football player Greg Little $20,000 while Little was enrolled at the school in 2010 brought barely a gasp from readers. The more typical response: How much was the school and the NCAA making on him?
And this week, Time magazine backs the athletes, with a cover story  that announces “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes.” In an interesting graphic, Time shows what some top name athletes would receive if they got the same cut of team revenue that NFL and NBA players do. Of interest here: UNC forward Michael McAdoo would receive $905,881 of the teams 2011-12 $24 million in revenue. Duke forward Jabari Parker would get $943,478 of the team’s $25 million in revenue that same year.
What flipped the switch of public opinion? Here’s a few highlights.
The notion that college athletes had been largely overlooked as the NCAA monolith grew had been percolating for a while when, this time last year, civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch laid it all bare, exposing in great detail just how absurd the plight of big-time college football and basketball players had become in his seminal piece, “The Shame of College Sports .” Branch likened the relationship between athletes, walking around without gas money in their pockets, and their schools, earning hundreds of thousands by selling replicas of the athletes’ jerseys, to indentured servitude .
And it wasn’t just the money-making that was eye-opening. The over-regulation of the athletes without any corresponding provision of rights for them was playing out here in North Carolina, with the Tar Heel football team under the NCAA microscope for alleged academic and financial improprieties.
Here’s former Justice Robert Orr, addressing the state bar association this past summer about just how far out of control NCAA regulation had become. One example: a female athlete charged with receiving an improper benefit when she used a university hose with university water to wash her car.
I had the chance to speak with Orr  last year about his growing interest in representing college athletes in the face of NCAA overreach. Here’s what he had to say about why:
It first started when I read a newspaper story about the mother of a UNC football player [Devon Ramsey], who had been declared guilty of academic fraud and permanently ineligible. She drives all the way from New Jersey and sits in a coffee shop with a sports reporter, saying, “This just isn’t right. What’s happened to my son is wrong.” Through an intermediary, I told Devon’ s mother that I’d be interested in talking about it, and gosh, once I got into it, I realized this kid had just been totally shafted. And like his mother said, you may not really care whether he plays football next year, but as a parent, when you see your child – granted he may have been 6-2, 240 pounds – labeled as guilty of academic fraud and unethical conduct, that has a lifelong impact, on their job opportunities and their post-graduate opportunities. And so I represented Devon in challenging what had happened to him.
The more I got into it, the more I was horrified, as a lawyer and former judge – you treat these kids like this. I mean, they really don’t have any rights. One of the more prophetic phone calls I had was with the director of compliance for the NCAA and one of their staff lawyers. I said, “Where in this 435-page manual, that I’ve read, will you find something about the rights of these student athletes?” And there’s this long silence, and finally one of them said, “That’s a really good question.” And yet there are literally hundreds of millions, if not billions, at stake in the system. The money is driven on the backs of maybe five or six thousand elite athletes at the football and basketball competition level.
Most recently there’s been the Johnny Manziel scandal , where the freshman Heisman Trophy winner and Texas A&M player (nicknamed “Johnny Football”) was sanctioned by the NCAA for autographing footballs and other items – not because he received money for that, but because he knew others would do so.
That prompted former Duke basketball player and now Moore & Van Allen attorney and ESPN superstar Jay Bilas — who’s long raged against the NCAA machine and its absurd treatment of the athletes it’s supposed to serve — to wage a Twitter war. In response to the NCAA’s claim that schools cannot sell a player’s jersey with his name on the back, Bilas went shopping in the NCAA store and, tweet by tweet, showed that by typing in a player’s number, up popped his jersey, available for purchase for up to $64.95.
Here’s just one of the many Bilas tweets that brought the NCAA to temporarily shut down its site and announce that it would no longer sell individual and college merchandise on its site.
This weekend New York Times columnist Joe Nocera called  the Manziel case the tipping point and added that the public is finally seeing the NCAA, and the money earned on the backs of these athletes, for what it is. Writes Nocera:
Critics of the current system, like me, often complain that everyone in the business of college sports gets rich except the players. In the case of Manziel, you can see that clearly. After Manziel’s great season, his coach, Sumlin, got a $1.1 million raise ; his salary, according to Time, now tops $3 million. The magazine came up with estimates showing that A&M’s media exposure, thanks in part to Manziel’s Heisman Trophy, is worth $37 million , and that the retail value of A&M merchandise is $72 million — a 20 percent jump from the previous year. “The general public now recognizes the fact that the money is preposterous,” Zola told me. It is this influx of money, much of it generated by television contracts, that makes the continued “amateur” status of the players so untenable.
Are changes on the way? They’ve been a long time coming. But based upon how the NCAA operates, the wait may be longer still. There’s lots of deliberation to be had.