NCAA president Mark Emmert said this afternoon that the NCAA will no longer be involved in the sale of team-specific merchandise like jerseys, USA Today’s Dan Wolken reported Thursday. It was a decision obviously sparked by the controversy that erupted this week when ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas noticed that typing in specific player names led directly to the jerseys those players wore.
“There’s no compelling reason the NCAA should essentially be re-selling paraphernalia from institutions,” Emmert said, according to the USA Today report. “I can’t speak to why we entered into that enterprise, but it’s not appropriate for us, and we’re going to exit it.”
“We recognize why that could be seen as hypocritical,” Emmert added. “We’re going to exit that business immediately.”
An admission of hypocrisy from an NCAA president is a big deal amid news that the organization is investigating Texas A&M; quarterback Johnny Manziel for allegedly accepting money for signing autographs. But this probably isn’t a light-bulb moment for Emmert and the NCAA as much as it is another effort to protect itself legally. The NCAA is already facing two lawsuits from former players who allege that it has improperly used their names, images, and likenesses for monetary gain without compensation. A judge is expected to rule soon on whether the more prominent suit, brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, should be certified as a class-action complaint. If class is certified, the case would be open to thousands of former and current college athletes.
Those lawsuits also drove the NCAA to announce the end of its partnership with video game developer EA Sports, which makes a line of NCAA College Football video games and is also named in both suits. Both actions illustrate how lightly the NCAA wants to tread around the improper use charges, especially since the direct link between player names and jerseys could have opened it up to yet another class complaint and won’t make defending itself in these two any easier. Once again, though, the NCAA isn’t embarking on fundamental change — it seems the jerseys and other merchandise will still be available through individual team sites and they’ll still bear the numbers of star players — as much as it is trying to avoid negative PR and shield itself from as much future legal liability as it possibly can.