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Commentary: NCAA May Not Be Run by Fools After All

Two down, one big one to go.

And with it a growing realization that maybe the people running the NCAA aren’t the bumbling idiots everyone has been making them out to be.

The NCAA’s agreement Tuesday to create a $70 million fund to diagnose concussions and brain injuries does more than just give some former and current athletes a bit of peace of mind — if no real money. It also extricates the organization from another serious threat to its existence, one that could have potentially bankrupted it if everyone who ever suffered a concussion playing college sports were somehow able to cash in.

Coupled with a $20 million settlement on a video games lawsuit announced on the eve of Ed O’Bannon’s landmark trial in June, the NCAA not only deftly avoided two major threats, but did so relatively cheaply. Unlike the $765 million concussion settlement the NFL agreed to, the NCAA will not pay players for any damage caused to their brains and will not pay to treat them even if such damage is diagnosed.

That quickly drew criticism from a leading activist for player rights, who said the settlement is just another reason players need a union to represent them on health and safety issues.

“This preliminary concussion settlement isn’t even on the radar of what should be a fair agreement,” said Ramogi Huma, head of the College Athletes Players Association. “It offers no resources for players who are struggling with the effects of traumatic brain injury. Not one penny.”

It was good enough, though, for the attorneys representing current and former players in the class action lawsuit. They’ll get their payday from the lawsuit, even if athletes get little more than some tests to see if their brains are scrambled and a referral to the proper doctors for treatment — assuming they have their own insurance or some other way of paying for it.

The NCAA, meanwhile, gets rid of a huge potential liability — at only a fraction of the cost of the $770 million it gets annually for hosting college basketball’s big tournament.

“To put it in context, they have over a half a billion dollars in reserves they’re doing nothing with. It just sits in the bank,” Huma said. “Some of that money could be used to help players in need but the settlement doesn’t do that.”

That’s no real surprise, because the major focus of the NCAA over the years hasn’t been player safety or athlete rights. Rather, it’s been enriching those who run the game and helping schools fund the escalating arms race that is major college sports.

The only reason some of that has changed is the pressure brought by Huma’s group —- which campaigned for a union organizing vote among Northwestern football players that shook the NCAA to the core — and a series of lawsuits on behalf of player rights. That includes the concussion lawsuit, which is a wide-ranging class action suit that covers all men and women who participated in contact sports at more than 1,000 schools over the past 50 years.

Settling that suit was huge, but it may not even be the biggest win for the NCAA this summer. If it can somehow prevail in the O’Bannon antitrust litigation — something most legal experts don’t see happening — it could remove perhaps the biggest threat of all: Having to pay players for their services.

But even if the NCAA loses the decision expected in the next few weeks from a federal judge in Oakland, it will not necessarily be the Armageddon for college sports. That’s true even if colleges are eventually forced to share some of the huge money they’re bringing in for basketball and football with players once they leave school.

The NCAA has already said it will appeal to the highest court. And even if that fails, the money pouring in from television deals that seem to multiply every few years would seem plenty enough.

“My sense is something like making these payments after graduation are not really big game changers,” said Rutgers law professor Michael Carrier, a specialist in antitrust and intellectual property law. “They’re just giving the plaintiffs a little piece of the money many people would view them as entitled to. I don’t think it will put college athletics out of existence.”

Another potentially big problem for the NCAA will likely go away next month when its board of directors is expected to agree to plans to give more autonomy to five major conferences representing 65 schools to give athletes benefits of their choosing. That will keep the big schools in the fold, despite the very real fears of other schools that it will create a caste system that could cost them both money and prestige.

There are still other lawsuits to deal with, other problems that remain. That can’t be avoided when you’re trying to pretend that big time college sports are amateur when in reality everyone is getting paid but the athletes themselves.

Suddenly, though, a summer that threatened to spell disaster for the NCAA at every turn seems to be turning out not so bad after all.