February 20, 2014

By TIM DAHLBERG

Associated Press

 

HENDERSON, Nev. (AP) — The first time Ed O’Bannon went up against the NCAA he was an 18-year-old with some serious talent and even more serious aspirations to play basketball at UNLV.

Against an organization bent on destroying Jerry Tarkanian and his band of Runnin’ Rebels, it was no contest. O'Bannon got the news he would not go to the college of his choice while on the road with a traveling basketball team.

“I cried,” he said. “I had worked my tail off to be good enough to accept a scholarship and be part of that team. What kid at that time didn’t want to go to UNLV? For the NCAA to take that away was absolutely upsetting.”

Nearly a quarter century later, O’Bannon is getting a rematch. His landmark suit demanding college players get some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate every year could change the way big time college athletics are operated.

All because of a chance encounter a few years ago at a friend’s home, where a certain bald headed, left handed forward wearing a UCLA uniform in a video game looked awfully familiar. It was O’Bannon, leading his team to the national championship in 1995.

“Initially it was, wow, pretty cool. I was fired up,” O’Bannon said. “But I immediately went from being fired up to being embarrassed. Then I thought, this is BS.”

To O’Bannon it was simple. The NCAA was making money off his image, and so was the video game company. He and the other players portrayed were getting nothing.

O'Bannon and others filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, challenging its ban on paying athletes. The suit also named video game maker Electronic Arts, which settled for $40 million in September and said it would no longer make video games featuring college teams.

The NCAA, though, battles on. Lawyers are scheduled to go before a federal judge in Oakland on Thursday on a motion to throw out the suit, saying the NCAA has no rules that force athletes who want to be paid to go to school and that paying elite athletes would take away money used to fund other athletic programs.

The fight has become almost a crusade for O’Bannon. It’s not about money, he says, but the principle of fair play.

The man at the forefront of the crusade against the NCAA sells cars for a living. Six days a week, he’s at the sprawling Findlay Toyota dealership in this Las Vegas suburb, where occasionally customers recognize him as the star of the UCLA team that won the national title.

O'Bannon had wanted to come to Las Vegas much earlier, but his plans to play at UNLV fell apart when the Tarkanian was forced to resign under pressure from the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations. He signed with UCLA instead, and was the star of the team that went 32-1 and won the school's first national title since John Wooden retired 20 years earlier.

O’Bannon is fond of his days at UCLA, and proud of his accomplishments. But even then he knew something wasn’t right about a system that offered little more than room and board and books for his services.

“I remember sitting at study hall with my teammates and we were upset because practice ran late and we didn’t quite make it to the cafeteria in time,” he said. “You’re sitting there hungry and you’ve got no money in your pocket to go to KFC and eat. We were bringing all this money into the school and were not seeing any of it.”

O’Bannon was drafted ninth by the New Jersey Nets the year he was named MVP of the Final Four, but his NBA career never took off. He played three seasons for the Nets and Dallas Mavericks, then spent another seven years playing on teams in Europe and South America.

He made some money, and his family got to see a lot of Europe during his travels. He has no regrets, even if it wasn’t the career he envisioned.

“I thought I was going to be a multiyear all-star. I thought I’d have a Hall of Fame career,” O’Bannon said. “It was going to be nothing short of what Magic Johnson did. He was the player I saw as a benchmark of how a basketball career should be.”

O’Bannon and his wife, a school counselor, live with their three children in an upscale community. Baseball is actually his first love, but to keep his hand in basketball, he is helping out this season coaching his son’s high school team.

He’s proud of going back to UCLA to finish a degree in U.S. history, proud of being the person that could change the way the NCAA does business. He’s also proud of his job selling cars, where he feels like he is part of a team, much like in his playing days.

“I like to think of myself not as a sales person but more as someone who helps with the decision making,” he says. “What I don’t do is convince someone to purchase a vehicle. I tell people I’m still going to sleep well at night if you don’t buy. My existence doesn’t depend on whether you buy a vehicle that particular day or not.”

On a recent weekday O’Bannon said at a table in the showroom at Findlay Toyota, interrupted occasionally by other employees walking by or customers stopping to say hello.

Instead of selling cars, the 41-year-old was talking about the lawsuit that challenges the NCAA over its rules prohibiting little more than books, tuition and room and board to athletes.

“I do see a place for it (pay) in college sports,” he said. “I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with it.”

But the NCAA does, insisting that the model of student-athletes getting a college education in exchange for their talents on the court or field is a good one.

The organization takes in an average $771 million a year off the TV rights to its basketball tournament alone. It claims the suit’s demand for revenue from television licensing fees should be thrown out, because the NCAA has a First Amendment right to televise newsworthy events.

There are signs the NCAA is feeling the heat. At the organization’s annual meeting last month in San Diego, large conferences proposed a $2,000-a-year stipend to help athletes. The stipend was approved in 2011 but shelved after small and medium-sized schools argued that they could not afford the payments.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken recently ruled against giving the suit class-action status that could have expanded it to include thousands of former athletes, saying there was no way to determine which of the former players might have been harmed by NCAA rules. But O'Bannon's suit — tentatively set for a trial in June — can go forward and others could bring similar actions.

Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law, said the lawsuit could alter the way the NCAA does business, with the possibility of college sports returning to the way they were operated prior to 1951 with the power resting at the school and conference level.

Then, he said, it would be up to the individual conferences to decide whether to pay players — and how much.

“Certain conferences such as the Ivy League will probably maintain status quo,” Edelman said. “Other conferences like the SEC might agree to improve financial conditions for student athletes as a way of inducing them to attend their schools. And conferences like the Big 10 will be conflicted. On one hand they will say they won’t pay athletes but if the SEC allows it some of the best student athletes might choose to go to SEC schools instead. That’s just the free market.”

O’Bannon said he'll be happy when that day comes.

“All I knew is something needed to be said,” he said. “My biggest thing was to bring awareness to this and to right a wrong. I’m not looking for money or a payday.”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep plugging away, working as hard at the dealership as he did on the basketball court.

“Whatever happens I’ll come into work the next day and do what I can to sell cars,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

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February 13, 2014

Associated Press

 

Missouri All-American Michael Sam says he is gay, and the defensive end could become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL.

In interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports that were published Sunday, Sam said he came out to all his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.

“I am an openly, proud gay man,” he said.

Sam will participate in the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis and is currently projected to be a mid-round draft pick in May.

“It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL,” he told ESPN.

The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year.

There have been a few NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.

Last year, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay after the season. Collins, a 35-year-old backup center, was a free agent when he came out and has not signed with a new team this season. MLS star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.

“His courage will inspire millions to live their truth,” Rogers tweeted about Sam.

Division III Willamette kicker Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman, said last month he was bisexual.

“We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage,” the NFL said in statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

Sam’s announcement comes at a time gay rights issues and sports have collided at the Olympics in Sochi. Russia's anti-gay law has received much attention, and criticism, because of the games.

“By rewriting the script for countless young athletes, Michael has demonstrated the leadership that, along with his impressive skills on the field, makes him a natural fit for the NFL,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a leading lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organization. “With acceptance of LGBT people rising across our coasts - in our schools, churches, and workplaces - it’s clear that America is ready for an openly gay football star.”

The NFL’s sexual orientation, anti-discrimination and harassment policy states:

Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player’s sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.

Examples: Do you like women or men? How well do you do with the ladies? Do you have a girlfriend?

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted: “I could care less about a man’s sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!”

Williams’ teammate, cornerback Drayton Florence, posted on his Twitter account: “No comment but it can be a distraction in the locker room. At least he’s open with it much respect!”

Sam said many people at the Senior Bowl, an all-star game for NFL prospects, seemed to know he was gay.

“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” he told ESPN. “I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me.”

Sam told the Times he dated a man on the Missouri swim team and came out to teammates L’Damian Washington and Marvin Foster about a year ago, before letting the whole team know during last preseason.

“Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we’re from, and something that no one knows about you,” Sam told ESPN. “And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay. And their reaction was like, ‘Michael Sam finally told us.’”

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night he was proud of Sam and how he represented the program.

“Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other,” Pinkel said. “If Michael doesn’t have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don’t think there’s any way he has the type of season he put together.”

Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner was a teammate of Sam's for five years.

“We knew of his status for 5 years and not one team member, coach, or staff member said anything says a lot about our family atmosphere,” Bonner tweeted.

AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.

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February 13, 2014

Associated Press

 

NEW YORK — Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter says he will retire after this season “with absolutely no regrets,” ending one of the greatest careers in the history of baseball's most storied franchise.

The 39-year-old New York captain posted a long letter on his Facebook page Wednesday saying that 2014 will be his final year.

A 13-time All-Star who has led the Yankees to five World Series championships, Jeter was limited to 17 games last season while trying to recover from a broken left ankle sustained during the 2012 playoffs.

“I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last year playing professional baseball,” he wrote.

“I have gotten the very most out of my life playing baseball, and I have absolutely no regrets,” he said.

Jeter was the last link to the powerful Yankees teams that won three straight World Series crowns from 1998-2000. Longtime teammates Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired after last year.

“Derek Jeter is Mr. Yankee of his era,” Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner told The Associated Press. “He was the face of one of the greatest teams ever.”

But Jeter’s joyride hit a big speed bump recently.

“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle,” Jeter wrote. “The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”

“So really it was months ago when I realized that this season would likely be my last. As I came to this conclusion and shared it with my friends and family, they all told me to hold off saying anything until I was absolutely 100 percent sure,” he wrote.

“And the thing is, I could not be more sure,” he wrote.

Jeter hit just .190 with one homer and seven RBIs last season.

His agent, Casey Close, said Jeter wanted to declare his intentions before the Yankees start spring training later this week so that his future status wouldn’t be a distraction.

“I’m excited for him. It’s kind of nice to see him go out on his own terms,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said at spring camp in Glendale, Ariz.

Mattingly finished up his All-Star career with the Yankees in 1995, the same season Jeter made his big league debut.

“I saw him when he first showed for spring training. I always think about spring training when I think about him, just because he was this 17-year-old kid right out of high school who looked out of place. He was skinny, but he was tough. He's been winning since the day he got there,” Mattingly said.

Jeter is the Yankees’ career hits leader with 3,316. He is a lifetime .312 hitter in 19 seasons, with 256 home runs and 1,261 RBIs.

Jeter has scored 1,876 runs and stolen 348 bases. He also is a five-time Gold Glove winner.

Added up, his numbers put him among the greats in Yankees history, with fans often invoking the names of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and others when mentioning Jeter’s legacy.

As for rating Jeter’s place with the Yankees, Mattingly said: “It’s hard. You’re talking about DiMaggio, Gehrig and Mantle. But he’s right there. He’s got to be one of those.”

Plus, No. 2 is defined by so much more than his numbers. His backhanded flip in the playoffs, his diving catch into the stands, his speech to close old Yankee Stadium and his home run for career hit No. 3,000.

As for rating Jeter’s place with the Yankees, Mattingly said: “It’s hard. You’re talking about DiMaggio, Gehrig and Mantle. But he’s right there. He’s got to be one of those.”

An October presence for so many years - he’s a career .321 hitter in seven World Series - he also became Mr. November in 2001. His winning, 10th-inning homer came shortly after midnight in a Game 4 that began on Halloween.

“Just as DiMaggio represented his era, Mantle represented his era and Ruth represented his era. And Reggie represented the 70s teams,” Steinbrenner said.

Jeter was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1996, the season the Yankees won their first World Series and re-established themselves as a major force. He was the MVP of the World Series.

Jeter has said he's fully ready for spring training this year and set to play.

Jeter worked out at the Yankees’ spring training complex on Wednesday and left around noon, giving no hint that he was about to announce his plans.

Commissioner Bud Selig said that during his tenure, “Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter.”

“Derek has represented all the best of the national pastime, on and off the field,” Selig said in a statement. “He is one of the most accomplished and memorable players of his - or any - era.”

“Derek is the kind of person that generations have emulated proudly, and he remains an exemplary face of our sport,” he wrote.

A staple for so long in the Yankees’ lineup, Jeter missed the first 91 games last year after setbacks in spring training and the early months of the season.

Even after his 2013 debut, things didn't go well. Jeter felt pain in his right quadriceps when he returned July 11 and again went on the disabled list.

Jeter returned July 28 for three games, but strained his right calf. He played from Aug. 26 through Sept. 7, leaving for a pinch runner after hitting a single against Boston. Four days later, the Yankees said Jeter was done for the year.

The Yankees will open the 2014 regular season on April 1 in Houston. Their home opener is April 7 against Baltimore.

Like Rivera last year, Jeter is sure to be saluted wherever he goes in this final season.

“Now it is time for the next chapter,” he wrote. “There are many things I want to do in business and in philanthropic work, in addition to focusing more on my personal life and starting a family of my own. And I want the ability to move at my own pace, see the world and finally have a summer vacation.”

“But before that, I want to soak in every moment of every day this year, so I can remember it for the rest of my life. And most importantly, I want to help the Yankees reach our goal of winning another championship,” he said.

AP freelance writers Mark Didtler in Tampa, Fla., and Norm Frauenheim in Glendale, Ariz., contributed to this report.

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February 13, 2014

Associated Press

 

GOLD COAST, Australia — Cheyenne Woods won the Australian Ladies Masters on Sunday for her first major professional tour victory, holding off 17-year-old Australian amateur Minjee Lee by two strokes.

The 23-year-old Woods, Tiger Woods’ niece, closed with a 4-under 69 at Royal Pines to finish at 16-under 276. Lee also shot 69 in the event sanctioned by the European and Australian tours.

Woods birdied the par-5 15th to open a two-stroke lead, hitting a wedge from about 120 yards to 4 feet. On the par-5 18th, she matched Lee with a birdie, holing out from 1½ feet.

“This is a huge accomplishment for me,” Woods said. “The European Tour has been great to be able to play this past year. I’ve been able to see all of these great players, play with Solheim Cup members ... to be able to come out here and compete with them and come out on top was huge for me.”

From Phoenix, Woods is the daughter of Earl Woods Jr., Tiger Woods’ half brother.

Woods turned professional in 2012 after an All-America career at Wake Forest and her only previous pro victory came in 2012 in a SunCoast mini-tour event. In December, she missed the cut in the LPGA Tour’s qualifying tournament in a failed bid to earn a spot on the circuit.

“I’ve been pro for two years and, for the majority of it, people just think of me as Tiger Woods’ niece, so now I have a game of my own and I have a title now, a win, which is exciting,” she said. “It’s nice now to say to people that I can play and I’m not just a name. Growing up with the last name of Woods, there’s a lot of expectations and pressure and spotlight on you but I always knew that I was able to win. I always knew I’d be able to compete with these ladies, so now it’s kind of a weight off my shoulders because now everybody knows not just me.”

Woods earned $51,000 and a two-year exemption on the Ladies European Tour. She will play next week in the LPGA Tour-sanctioned Women’s Australian Open in Victoria.

South Africa’s Stacy Lee Bregman and Sweden’s Camilla Lennarth tied for third at 12 under. Bergman closed with a 72, and Lenmarth had a 70.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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February 06, 2014

By DOUG FEINBERG

Associated Press

 

Magic Johnson was back at the Staples Center, dishing an assist to the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.

The former Lakers great is part of a group buying the Sparks and keeping league MVP Candace Parker and the team in LA.

“The leaders of this great city came together quickly to keep this franchise right where it belongs — in the city of Angels,” Johnson said at a news conference Wednesday outside Staples Center. “Thanks to my sister, Evelyn, playing college basketball, I have a great appreciation of the talented players that represent the WNBA. Our group will now work together to bring our loyal fans another WNBA championship.”

Johnson is joined in the ownership group by Mark Walter, the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and co-owners Todd L. Boehly, Robert L. Patton and Stan Kasten. The WNBA and NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved the purchase of the Sparks by the ownership group.

“We’re totally thrilled,” WNBA President Laurel Richie told The Associated Press. “When Magic chooses to enter into a partnership with a WNBA team, that's a great thing. He’s a legend within basketball. He’s very knowledgeable about the game. He’s a larger-than-life personality. He’s an extremely successful business man. He cares about the community the way that the WNBA does.”

Johnson and Walter teamed with a group of investors to buy the Dodgers in 2012 for a record $2 billion and combined with outgoing owner Frank McCourt to buy land surrounding Dodger Stadium for $150 million.

It will be the same group owning the Sparks, minus Peter Guber, who owns a stake in the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

Richie said Walter and Johnson discussed the idea on a cross-country flight and by the time they landed on the West Coast they had decided they wanted to own the Sparks.

“Earvin came to me and said we need to help save the Sparks and keep them in Los Angeles,” Walter said. “The decision was quite easy for our investment group due to the passion Magic has for this city, these great athletes and our phenomenal fans. This team and its great players should remain a part of the sports fabric of this wonderful city.”

Previous Sparks owner Paula Madison informed the league in late December that she wouldn't be able to run the team. She told The Associated Press that her family had lost $12 million, including $1.4 million last season, operating the franchise since buying it from the Buss family in 2007.

Johnson was a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers for a decade before selling his share in 2011.

While the franchise hasn’t been successful financially, the Sparks have been one of the WNBA's best teams on the court and led the league in attendance the past two seasons. They won WNBA titles in 2001 and 2002 and made it to the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. They were knocked out in the opening round by Phoenix last season.

Los Angeles, one of only four original WNBA franchises left, also has one of the league’s marquee players in Parker. She led the team with an average of 25.7 points last season. She’s joined by All-Stars Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver, who headline a talented roster.

Parker tweeted her reaction on Wednesday: “Words cant describe how pumped I am. I aspire to do what youve done @Magic Johnson win championshipS.”

Former LA star Lisa Leslie and coach Carol Ross also attended the announcement with Johnson at the Staples Center.

“I do know they were very attracted to this team not just because they were in L.A. and their incredible history, but also their performance over the last few years,” Richie said. “The players, Candace being MVP, Carol being Coach of the Year, their knowledge and experience — they recognize what an incredible franchise it is at this moment.”

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