Judge Says Athletes’ Case Against NCAA Amateurism Rules Can Move Forward


Ed O'Bannon celebrates winning the 1995 NCAA basketball championship.

A federal judge on Friday partially certified class action status in a lawsuit from current and former college athletes that threatens to bring about major changes to NCAA amateurism rules, a decision both athletes and the NCAA hailed as a success. The athletes, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, sued the NCAA alleging violations of antitrust law and seeking millions, if not billions, of dollars in damages for the improper use of their names, images, and likenesses during and after their collegiate careers.

Judge Claudia Wilken ruled Friday that the athletes’ central claim against NCAA amateurism rules that prevent them from receiving compensation for the use of their names and images could move forward as a class action suit, a decision that could shake up the entire modern college athletics structure if the plaintiffs ultimately win the case. Wilken, however, held that the athletes are not entitled to immediate damages in the case, since parsing which athletes were damaged — and to what extent they were damaged — would be too difficult, if not impossible.

The NCAA sees that as a victory, since it won’t have to pay out billions of dollars in damages to former athletes. “We have long maintained that the plaintiffs in this matter are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law. This ruling is one step closer to validating that position,” the NCAA’s chief legal officer, Donald Remy, said, according to USA Today.

Similarly, the plaintiffs held up the decision as a win for their side. “The court’s decision is a victory for all current and former student-athletes who are seeking compensation on a going forward basis,” attorneys said in a statement. “While we are disappointed that the court did not permit the athletes to seek past damages as a group, we are nevertheless hopeful that the court’s decision will cause the NCAA to reconsider its business practices.”

Right now, this is a bigger win for the athletes. Wilken has hinted throughout the process that she would certify their class, but had she refused to do so, the NCAA’s problem likely would have disappeared altogether, dissolved into thousands of individual lawsuits that would not have had the major implications the O’Bannon suit has had since it was originally filed. While the NCAA is now protected against any threat of an immediate payout now, it still faces a major threat: the possibility that the O’Bannon case could ultimately invalidate the current financial structure of college athletics. If the NCAA eventually loses the case, which it has said it is prepared to take all the way to the Supreme Court, future athletes could have the ability to stake claim to all sorts of broadcast and image-related revenues.

That, put simply, would give the athletes a say in how their names, images, and likenesses are used — and in how they are compensated for that use. Right now, all current money from broadcasts and licensing goes to the NCAA and its member schools. The O’Bannon case could change that, shifting some of the money to players. So even if Wilken’s ruling protects the NCAA from damages in the short-term, it opens the door to a radical restructuring of the current college athletics model.

At Sports Illustrated, legal expert Michael McCann says that Wilken’s partial certification could encourage talks of a settlement, which heretofore have not existed as both sides remained entrenched in their own positions. A settlement, as McCann notes, likely depends on the willingness of the players to entertain the idea, and whether they can legally settle on behalf of future college athletes.

O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs are surely disappointed by the fact that they won’t receive damages for what they believe is improper use of their images (though they can still sue the NCAA individually). But the broader implications of this lawsuit were always about the future of the NCAA, and thanks to Wilken’s ruling, the O’Bannon suit has moved another step closer to bringing compensation and more rights to college athletes.