Just days after his untimely death in December 1964, the recording of the song “A Change Is Gonna Come”, written and performed by the legendary soul music and rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, was publicly released. The song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, with its protestations against racial discrimination and injustice.
There doesn’t seem to be any record of a connection between Sam Cooke and wrestling — although he was with Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, when Clay won the world heavyweight boxing championship from Sonny Liston in February 1964 — but the theme of “A Change Is Gonna Come” could also become an anthem for college wrestling.
Simply put, the basic structure of college athletics in general and college wrestling in particular have begun to undergo historic changes. This is not only about the musical chairs played in recent years by the major conferences. This world will be changing fundamentally due to a successful lawsuit filed by a group of former college athletes led not by a wrestler, but by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, against the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), Electronic Arts Inc., and the Collegiate Licensing Company.
In it, they were addressing another form of injustice: the raking in of millions and millions of dollars of revenues from big-time college sports by schools, conferences, TV networks, and other businesses while sharing none of those revenues with the athletes whom people paid to see compete.
In short, in August 2014, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken issued a ruling in favor of O’Bannon and 19 other plaintiffs saying the NCAA violated antitrust laws and conspired to prevent the players from receiving part of these revenues.
Judge Wilken summed up her decision by writing: “For the reasons set forth above, the Court concludes that the NCAA’s challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act. Specifically, the association’s rules prohibiting student-athletes from receiving any compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses restrains price competition among FBS football and Division I basketball schools as suppliers of the unique combination of educational and athletic opportunities that elite football and basketball recruits seek. Alternatively, the rules restrain trade in the market where these schools compete to acquire recruits’ athletic services and licensing rights.” (The entire 99-page ruling can he read here.)
This complicated order mandates that the schools establish trust funds, payable when the students leave school, for deferred compensation of not less than $5,000 above scholarship, per athlete.
The implementation of this order will, of course, be hammered out both in the courts and whatever negotiations may take place between the athletes and their schools and conferences. But it means that, for the first time legally, some college athletes, presumably at schools with major football and basketball programs, will have to be paid.
And this leaves open a myriad of questions: Who will be paid, and how much? Will this only affect college football and basketball, the so-called “revenue” sports? What about the many football and basketball programs which lose money each year? And, crucial for wrestling: What of the so-called “non-revenue” sports? Will wrestlers have to receive a cut of the revenues that come in from their sport, and which wrestlers and how much? And will schools cut funding for programs like wrestling so that, they may argue, they have money to pay the athletes from programs like football and basketball?
All this remains unresolved, like a suplex frozen in mid-air, halfway until completion. But one thing is certain. However this is all settled, wrestling must even more than before redouble it efforts to increase its popularity and fan base, and now, and quickly. Already ravaged by numerous problems over the years, college wrestling may be facing the biggest peril to its survival it has ever faced.
In fact, saying “A Change Is Gonna Come” may actually be somewhat old news, as the changes to the structure of college athletics are already being implemented — but, unlike the changes advocated by Sam Cooke and so many others, for college wrestling, they may not lead to a fairer and more just situation.
So for college wrestling, it may be change or die time, folks. And the final buzzer of this match is not far off.
(The original recording by Sam Cooke of “A Change Is Gonna Come” can be heard here.)
(Eddie Goldman is host and producer of the No Holds Barred podcast, at EddieGoldman.com.)