It has been nearly a decade since Ed O’Bannon last played a professional basketball game, 18 years since he led the UCLA Bruins to their last national championship in 1995. But O’Bannon has never had a bigger influence on the sports world than he did in 2013, when his lawsuit against the NCAA galvanized the conversation about the rights of college athletes to compensation and control over their own names, images, and likenesses.
O’Bannon filed the suit against the NCAA, video game manufacturer EA Sports, and the Collegiate Licensing Company in 2009, but it wasn’t until this year that it sprang to life, heading to federal court and driving the top power-brokers in college sports mad. The central claim: that the NCAA, EA Sports, and the CLC have violated antitrust law by conspiring with each other to fix the value of college atheltes’ names, images, and likenesses at zero. In doing so, the groups have made it easy for them to share in the profits college athletics create without cutting a piece of the pie for current and former players whose names are used in promotional materials, video games, and broadcasts.
The case put everyone involved in sports on notice: while there have long been discussions, and even other lawsuits, challenging the merits of the NCAA’s sacred “amateurism,” for the first time there was now a challenge to the system that could bring fundamental changes to the billion-dollar business that is big-time collegiate athletics.
O’Bannon isn’t the first person to sue the NCAA, nor will he be the last. What makes his case — and him — so influential is the direct shot it fired at the organization that oversees college sports. The case’s status as a class action suit gives it greater weight to overthrow the system, and it has put the issue of amateurism at the top of the list of topics in sports discussion. O’Bannon’s suit has made the issue of compensation a must-ask question whenever NCAA president Mark Emmert, conference commissioners, or college presidents appear in front of the media.
There has always been criticism of the NCAA, but the O’Bannon suit has given the organization’s most ardent critics a reason to believe that change could be coming. It has given the media a reason to focus and elevate the arguments against amateurism. It has put issues of athletes’ rights and eligibility into a new context — observe, for instance, the way in which the media covered this summer’s Johnny Manziel autograph scandal or criticized Sports Illustrated‘s expose of the Oklahoma State football program. It has helped spur new works like “Schooled,” a documentary focused on the rights of college athletes and brought new attention to the efforts of people opposed to the status quo, whether it’s historian Taylor Branch, author of The Atlantic’s “The Shame of College Sports,” or former athlete-turned commentator Jay Bilas, who has criticized the NCAA at every turn. The case emerged as one of the central motivations behind the All Players United protests that happened on various college football fields this fall. And, given Judge Claudia Wilken’s partial certification of class action status, it has shown that the legal system is finally willing to listen.
On top of that, there’s a sense that others smell blood in the water. This year, the law firm Winston & Strawn announced that it was opening the country’s first division aimed at representing players or schools that wanted to challenge the NCAA. Leading the effort is Jeffrey Kessler, a labor lawyer who has represented players unions against all four major sports leagues and, as he told me in January, believes “there are good (legal) arguments that Division I football is basically a business, and that students are exploited as workers.” Winston & Strawn partner David Greenspan and associate Tim Nevius, who previously worked for the NCAA, are running the division. It’s entirely possible that this would have occurred without the O’Bannon suit, but it’s easy to see how the landmark case against the NCAA may have contributed to its development.
Most important, though, the case has elicited justifications for the current system from NCAA officials that poke holes in their own case for amateurism. They have argued that athletic departments couldn’t continue if they paid athletes; that the case results only from an “entitlement attitude” among players; that they don’t need the case or public pressure to do the right thing. All of those arguments, as I and others have explained, are bogus. And while they have been made — and have been bogus — for years before the O’Bannon case came along, it is suit that has put them in the news and forced the public debate about what is going on at our colleges and universities. And that suit exists because of Ed O’Bannon.
O’Bannon himself may not benefit much from his own lawsuit. Wilken, in partially certifying class action status, ruled that while current athletes could receive benefits through a suit against the NCAA, former players could not. Parsing old broadcasts and video games to see how former players were represented, she said, would be too complicated. Nevertheless, O’Bannon remained undeterred, promising to continue pursuing the case even if he’d have to file his own separate suit to benefit himself.
Barring a settlement with the NCAA (EA and the CLC have both already settled), the case will go to trial in June 2014. The NCAA, for its part, has said that it would fight O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs to the Supreme Court to protect its current system. If that’s the case, we’ll be in for years of litigating over the rights of college athletes. But while major changes to the current system may be years away, O’Bannon’s case fully set the wheels in motion in 2013, and because his lawsuit could upend one of the biggest institutions in American sports, that’s enough to make him the most influential man in the sports world this year.
Others of note:
Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers: Both Collins and Rogers came out as gay in 2013, making them the most prominent openly gay male athletes in American team sports. Rogers did so in February, when he came out on his personal blog and promptly retired from soccer. He returned, however, to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy in May, making him the first openly gay male to play in any of major American sports leagues. Collins, meanwhile, came out in a Sports Illustrated article in April, giving him a chance to become the NBA’s first openly gay active player. Collins is still looking for a team for the 2013-2014 NBA season.
Bennet Omalu, Mike Webster, and The Dissenters: Much like O’Bannon, Omalu and Webster’s influence in 2013 stemmed from efforts that began long ago. It was Omalu who found chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, in Webster’s brain upon the former Pittsburgh Steeler’s death in 2001. Twelve years later, CTE is the disease that is at the center of the NFL’s concussion crisis and the league’s efforts to make its game safer. Omalu and Webster were central characters in League of Denial, the book and accompanying documentary that shed light on the NFL’s efforts to cover up a link between football and long-term brain injuries. The Dissenters, meanwhile, was the group of doctors that once worked for the NFL but bucked the league’s assertions that concussions posed no problem to the game. And then there were the Boston University doctors, like Ann McKee, who helped bolster the research into CTE. Those efforts helped lead to the major lawsuit from more than 4,500 former NFL players that was settled in October for $765 million. The discussion about football and brain injuries that only intensified in 2013 began primarily because of Omalu, Webster, and the other doctors and researchers who keep breaking ground on CTE.
Roger Goodell: The New Republic‘s Marc Tracy argued this week that the NFL commissioner would have made a good choice as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, and I agree. Goodell hasn’t necessarily had the positive influence that the others on this list have had, but his impact on sports is undeniable: he is currently overseeing not only the biggest, richest sports league in America, but in concussions, the biggest crisis in sports too. Goodell’s actions on concussions in 2013 epitomized his general conundrum. He at once undertook efforts to make the game safer, pushing through new rule changes and approving funds for research into CTE and concussions, and continued to deny direct links between football and brain injuries. His league reached a preliminary settlement with more than 4,500 players over how it managed concussions in the past. And all of that was done in the context of a league that is trying to grow revenues to more than $20 billion over the next decade. How Goodell walks the line of the concussion and head injury crisis, which poses an existential threat to the game, will determine whether he can do so. He has to win the public relations battle on the issue, and he has to prove to people that this game is sufficiently safe for children to play. And yet, those efforts could all one day help prove that making football sufficiently safer isn’t possible.
Thursday, we’ll choose 2013’s most influential woman in sports.