Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA Finally Goes to Court to Test the College Sports System

The landmark amateur sports case Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA finally heads to court on Monday to decide whether the NCAA can use the likenesses of college athletes without compensation and whether the NCAA's model violates antitrust law.

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The landmark legal case Ed O'Bannon v. NCAA finally heads to court on Monday to decide whether the NCAA can forbid college athletes from profiting off their own likenesses — and perhaps whether the NCAA's entire student-athlete model violates antitrust law.

Here's a rundown of what's taking place this week, and what is at stake for the future of the NCAA's amatuer sports system.

What the trial is about

A 20-person group of plaintiffs is suing the NCAA on behalf of all men's basketball and football players, as they allege that the NCAA is violating antitrust law by forbidding players from making money from their own names, images, and likenesses. While the NCAA makes big revenues — $912.8 million last year — college athletes' revenues are capped at the cost of tuition, room and board, and some other limited benefits.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against the NCAA to end rules that forbid players from making money for their names, images, and likenesses. The plaintiffs are not seeking damages for past uses of their likenesses, but are challenging the legality of the NCAA's model for the future.

As CBS Sports notes, the case largely focuses on television revenues: live broadcasts, rebroadcasts, highlight clips, and video games. O'Bannon wants players to be able to negotiate their own prices for their likenesses. For example, ESPN pays the SEC for the rights to show Tim Tebow highlights from his days at the University of Florida. Should Tebow be paid for that, too?

Why O'Bannon?

Ed O'Bannon, now 41 years old, is a former UCLA basketball player who won the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player award for the Bruin's 1995 national championship team. The ex-college star was spurred to sue the NCAA after seeing his likeness used in an EA Sports basketball video game without being compensated. "I want players to get what they deserve," O'Bannon told CNN. "I want to right a wrong, I want the game to change. I want the way the NCAA does business — I want that to change." While O'Bannon is the face of the plaintiffs, the entire 20-person group also includes basketball greats Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. His original lawsuit was filed in 2009.

What has happened so far

The O'Bannon lawsuit originally targeted the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company, and Electronic Arts, the makers of the popular NCAA Football video game franchise. Those latter two settled with the plaintiffs for $40 million last week, leaving the NCAA to stand on its own in the case's defense. On Monday, the NCAA settled their part for $20 million, ending the dispute about licensing fees for the games. EA Sports agreed to stop making the profitable football video games last September in the course of settlement negotiations.

Those settlements do not end O'Bannon's claims about the lawfulness of college sports and its amateur model. Though the O'Bannon plaintiffs originally asked for $3.2 billion in damages for former players, they lost their bid for class certification on that argument. Instead, the case was narrowed to the question of the NCAA's restrictions on licensing for current and future athletes. "A case that began about the past is now about the future," Sports Illustrated explains.

When will it be solved

The case is being heard in Oakland, in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California. The court will be in session every weekday for the next three weeks, unless a resolution is reached earlier. The case is a bench trial rather than in front of a jury, and U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken will lead the proceedings. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.