As a power forward for the UCLA Bruins, Ed O’Bannon won a national championship and the 1995 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player award. However, nobody could have guessed that his most lasting NCAA memory could possibly occur nearly 20 years later with a lawsuit that threatens to change the fabric of college athletics.
A district court is set to issue rulings in a case, O’Bannon v. NCAA, which could force the National Collegiate Athletic Association to share billions of dollars in revenues with student-athletes whose images are used for merchandise. While a trial in the class action case is set for June, both sides have asked U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to decide some major antitrust issues in the case beforehand.
Currently, the NCAA does not compensate players for use of likenesses in media past allowing scholarships to the athletes’ respective academic institutions. O’Bannon, who filed the class action suit in 2009 after seeing his likeness used in a college basketball video game, argues that this use amounts to free labor for the NCAA.
However, the NCAA argues that amateurism rules bar student-athletes from receiving these types of payments. If forced to pay more than the price of education, the NCAA says, then college sports could not function. The association also argues that it does not actively restrict player rights like the suit claims.
Electronic Arts, the maker of the video game which used O’Bannon’s likeness without his permission, was also named as a defendant in the original suit. However, the company settled the suit out of court in 2013 for a $40 million price tag. Electronic Arts no longer makes NCAA-branded college football and basketball games.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Judge Wilken said her order in the case should come “relatively soon,” but also noted that she would only be deciding certain aspects of the case and not the case in its entirety.
The O’Bannon case may be the only college amateurism case close to its finish, but it is not the only front on which the NCAA is being attacked. The National Labor Relations Board is currently conducting hearings as to whether college athletes should be considered employees and allowed to unionize, with the Northwestern University football team and the College Athletes Players Association as a test case.
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