One Step Closer To Compensation For College Athletes

Ed O'Bannon played at UCLA from 1991 to 1995

College athletes are one step closer to some form of compensation. A federal judge in California refused a request by the NCAA to dismiss a lawsuit that challenges the organization’s rights to the images of former college athletes and the money it makes off them.

Former University of California-Los Angeles basketball star Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA and video game manufacturers in 2009, claiming that they do not have the right to use his likeness in commercials, video games, and television rebroadcasts without compensation. Last year, lawyers in that suit, which is now a class-action joined by former stars like Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, amended it to seek a share of all TV and video game revenue for men’s basketball and football players. The suit could be worth billions of dollars for the NCAA, which has a television contract worth more than $10 billion and sells licenses for its brand to video game manufacturers.

The NCAA sought the suit’s dismissal on procedural grounds, but a federal judge denied that motion yesterday:

In dismissing a motion by the NCAA to prevent football and men’s basketball players from legally pursuing a cut of live broadcast revenues, a federal court judge Tuesday raised the stakes for the governing body of college sports as it defends its economic model.

Judge Claudia Wilken issued her ruling Tuesday, rejecting the NCAA’s motion that players in the antitrust suit led by former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon should be precluded from advancing their lawsuit on procedural grounds.

The suit, if O’Bannon prevails, would not allow for compensation while athletes are in college. Instead, it would set up a trust in which players’ share of revenues — 50 percent of TV revenues and 33 percent of those from video game sales — would sit until the completion of their collegiate careers. As lawyer Michael McCann explained in Sports Illustrated, an O’Bannon victory still wouldn’t allow compensation for labor, but it would allow them to be compensated for their images and their use.

As I wrote in a long piece for AlterNet this week, athletes, professors, lawyers, legislators and activist organizations are pursuing compensation and labor rights for athletes in different manners — through litigation, legislation, reform, or outright organization. There is a compelling case that athletes function as employees (much like some graduate students), and that as such, they have a right to a voice in the system in which they function. An O’Bannon victory wouldn’t define athletes as employees. But it would be a clear demonstration of how much value athletes generate for universities and the NCAA, an outcome that would make it harder to for the organization to pretend publicly that the athletes are simply playing for fun.