Landmark case could change college sports

Former Cal State Fullerton baseball player Nick Mahin, right, celebrates with teammates during an NCAA Super Regional game on June 9, 2007 against UCLA. O’Bannon’s lawsuit could affect how student-athletes’ images are used after their college careers. Photo Courtesy MCT.

Former UCLA basketball star, Ed O’Bannon, is filing a class-action lawsuit against the governing body of collegiate athletics, the National Collegiate Athletics Association, claiming the actions by the non-profit organization to be anti-competitive.

The complaint stated that the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company “has illegally deprived former athletes” from a “myriad of revenue streams.”

“Are there contracts or other documents signed that would regulate the use of players’ names, images? Does O’Bannon ‘own’ his name or likeness? Or did he when he played in the NCAA?” asked Cal State Fullerton communications law professor Genelle Belmas. “Those are the questions that a court would examine.”

The name Ed O’Bannon is often associated with the 1995 national basketball championship.

Scoring an astounding 30 points and 17 rebounds in a victory over Arkansas, he often personifies the UCLA team that cut down the nets that year.

Despite all the successes he achieved in college, O’Bannon never found a groove in the professional ranks.

Flash forward 15 years and the former collegiate star has reappeared in the middle of the courts, but this time in the United States District Court.

On Feb. 8, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco rejected the NCAA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the former men’s basketball star.

Should O’Bannon succeed, the ramifications of the case can change the entire landscape in which the NCAA conducts its business with athletes and sponsors.

“If O’Bannon and the former athletes prevail or receive a favorable statement, the NCAA, along with its member conferences and schools, could be required to pay tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in damages – particularly since damages are trebled under federal antitrust law,” said writer Michael McCann in a Sports Illustrated article.

According to Marlen Garcia of USA Today, the suit currently lists O’Bannon and many unnamed former college football and basketball players as plaintiffs.

O’Bannon originally committed to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but with possible sanctions looming over the basketball program, he instead transferred to UCLA.

From 1991 to 1995, O’Bannon wore the blue and gold and eventually reached the apex of college basketball, becoming a national champion riding on the back of an illustrious senior season.

His performance in the big game made him a UCLA legend, eventually retiring his No. 31 jersey.

O’Bannon was the ninth overall pick in the 1995 NBA draft.

The former Bruin feels that the NCAA has long been taking advantage of its amateur athletes after their college carriers ended. NCAA and the CLC use players’ images and likenesses.

Their portraits and memorable moments are plastered in various commercials and advertisements, and their likeness is reproduced through jerseys and videos.

“A lot of guys get scholarships, and that’s compensation enough,” said Titan baseball’s senior catcher Billy Marcoe. “They pay for school, books, and even provide a little money to live off.”

Even the video game business has dipped into this lucrative opportunity.

EA Sports has had a successful college video game franchise that depends largely on the collegiate licensing of players, since it includes current rosters, classic teams and its players.

Players in the game have the exact details pertaining to them, everything from their weight, height and even their preference of hand.

“The NCAA bars current and former student-athletes from receiving compensation for NCAA licensed products, which comprise part of a $4 billion collegiate licensed industry,” McCann said.

Despite being a “voluntary” organization, the NCAA oversees and governs a monumental amount of money.

From 2009-10, the NCAA racked in about $710 million from television and marketing rights, championships and investment fees and services.

The NCAA also currently has a $6 billion, 11-year television deal in conjunction with CBS for the men’s basketball tournament, and with a potential 96 team format in the works, the NCAA is creating more streams of revenue.

But the NCAA states on their Web site that approximately 95 percent of the revenue that they receive from television marketing rights fees and championships is returned to the schools, conferences and affiliates in the form of direct payments and event services.

The key element supporting O’Bannon’s anti-competitive case is the “notorious” form 08-3a that the NCAA requires all student athletes to sign.

“They explain all the forms to us,” said Marcoe.

The lawsuit put fourth by O’Bannon claims that athletes are coerced into signing form 08-3a, a form that relinquishes the athlete’s right to take their image and likeness, in effect preventing them from using it for personal business purposes.

In order to play collegiate sports, they have to sign the form or be deemed academically ineligible thus forfeiting their scholarship.

“The rules are pretty straight forward in what they are and there are certain ones you know you can or can’t do,” said sophomore first baseman and pitcher Nick Ramirez.

“(They) signed because (they) wanted the benefits of being an athlete,” said Belmas. “You give up some rights when you enter into a relationship like that.”

O’Bannon’s focus is strictly in representing athletes that have finished up their college career, and strongly believes that athletes that are currently fulfilling their scholarship don’t need monetary compensation.But the outcome of the case can also protect current college athletes after their careers end.

While many question the legitimacy of his case, the high power law firms Hausfeld LLC and Boies, Schiller & Flexner have chosen to represent him. Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wrote that Boies Schiller & Flexner undertook the infamous case of Bush v. Gore in 2000. “These aren’t the kinds of firms that take on small or weak cases,” said Wetzel.

O’Bannon is not the first to fight the NCAA. Former Stanford University football player Jason White, along with other athletes, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA regarding the cap on scholarship offers, and managed a settlement.

Green lighting the case is an early step in the process, but a significant maneuver nonetheless. It could be years before any resolutions are actually achieved.

About Oscar Romero