The Ed O’Bannon trial will have ramifications for college sports nationwide, especially big-time programs like Villanova basketball

By Ben Fitzgerald

The landmark trial that begins Monday in Oakland, Calif., between the NCAA and a group of its current and former athletes is technically not about sports, or even whether college athletes deserve a paycheck like their counterparts in the pros. It is an antitrust suit that asks whether the NCAA unfairly blocked generations of student-athletes from making money off their own images.

But the outcome could bring a jarring end to something far more significant: the principle of athletic amateurism, which is the founding ideal behind the 108-year-old NCAA.

At present, the only compensation college athletes can receive is a scholarship and, if they’re exceptionally good, a shot at making millions in professional sports. What U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken will decide is whether to force the NCAA to share the billions of dollars in revenues it earns with the athletes whose likenesses it uses for commercial purposes (like TV broadcasts).

And the decision may come soon: Wilken’s bench trial is scheduled to end no later than June 27.

Here are a few key things to know heading into the trial:

Who is Ed O’Bannon and why is he suing the NCAA?

O’Bannon, the lead plaintiff in the case, is a former UCLA basketball star who filed the suit in 2009 after he saw an avatar that looked like him depicted in an NCAA-branded videogame. He says it’s unfair that the NCAA can sell broadcast rights to games he played while prohibiting him from receiving any proceeds. O’Bannon, who works at a car dealership in Nevada, won’t make any money if he prevails since the ruling will only apply to future earnings.

What does this have to do with Northwestern football’s unionization drive?

Both efforts could result in payments to college athletes, but they would arrive from different places. The Northwestern case stems from a National Labor Relations Board regional director’s ruling that Northwestern’s scholarship football players are employees of their schools and eligible to unionize. The ruling, which the university has appealed, challenges the NCAA’s longtime stance that athletes are students first and athletes second. The decision was based on concerns players raised about work hours, long-term health consequences and financial and academic support. Northwestern football players cast ballots on unionization in April, but they have been impounded until the NLRB decides on the school’s appeal to its ruling.

What are the trial’s possible outcomes, and do they include a settlement?

If the judge rules in favor of the athletes, the NCAA would be forced to cut players in on future TV-rights deals. The players want up to half the money, but Wilken could pick any number. The ruling would apply to all Division I men’s basketball players and top-level football players unless they opt out of the suit. In a trial brief filed this week, plaintiffs’ attorneys seemed to favor deferred compensation as a payment plan, arguing that the NCAA and its member schools could place any new revenues in a trust college athletes can tap when their eligibility expires. In the past, the NCAA has asserted that some member schools might exit the business of college sports if they’re forced to share revenue with the players. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have called that argument “truly incredible.” The plaintiffs had some early victories, too, as Wilken batted down various NCAA requests and arguments.

If the players lose, the NCAA model remains the same for now-though NCAA president Mark Emmert has acknowledged the organization needs to change. Later this summer, the NCAA Board of Directors is expected to consider whether to allow schools to pay athletes stipends to cover the gap between their scholarships and their actual expenses.

Could they settle? Both sides have said publicly that they won’t and it’s hard to see a path to compromise given the fundamental nature of the disagreement. Giving even a small share of revenue to players upends the NCAA’s definition of amateurism.

What about that other settlement?

Some 100,000 current and former athletes are due part of a $40 million settlement reached last week. They’ll get payments ranging from $48 to $951 for use of their likenesses in NCAA-branded videogames dating back to 2003. The settlement, with Electronic Arts and Collegiate Licensing Co., which licenses and markets college sports, is an offshoot of the O’Bannon case.

Is there a simple way to fix this?

If the NCAA is ordered to upend its founding principle and allow players to be paid, most schools can afford to do so. But it will raise some issues: what to do about nonrevenue sports, schools whose teams aren’t profitable and star players who attract far more revenue than others.

Still, the current restrictions seem doomed in the face of huge contracts the schools are benefiting from—like a 12-year, $3 billion broadcast deal between the Pac-12 Conference and ESPN and Fox. Schools in the top conferences now earn more than $20 million a year from memberships in conferences with big TV deals.


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