The 1995 NBA Draft was held in Toronto, and when the expansion Raptors selected Damon Stoudamire with the seventh overall pick, the assembled crowd of local fans, lacking the education that a single season of professional basketball at the elite level might provide, booed because they wanted the team to draft Ed O’Bannon. Never mind the fact that Stoudamire and O’Bannon were PAC-10 Co-Players of the Year. Three months earlier, they had all learned of O’Bannon’s story during UCLA’s National Championship run through the NCAA Tournament, for which the 6’8″ forward was named Most Outstanding Player.
A matter of days before his first Midnight Madness practice at UCLA, the 6’8″ forward tore his ACL in a game of pickup hoops. He was told by doctors that the injury wouldn’t allow him to walk properly, let alone pursue a career playing basketball. However, he persevered through a redshirt year of rehab and emerged as a capable substitute in his freshman season. His sophomore campaign saw him named to the PAC-10 first team. It was an honor he’d repeat in his junior year, along with being named UCLA’s Most Valuable Player.
As impressive as his turnaround was, it was all just a lead up to O’Bannon’s senior year in which he led the Bruins to the 1995 NCAA Basketball Championship, collecting multiple honors along the way including yet another place in the PAC-10 first team, a consensus nod as a first team All-American, the aforementioned PAC-10 Player of the Year, and the USBWA College Player of the Year award. It was a successful enough season to make his name not only known to the majority of sports fans in a Canadian city more than 2,500 miles away from where he played College Basketball, but also actively coveted as the face of their new NBA franchise.
O’Bannon was eventually selected ninth overall by the New Jersey Nets. He was largely ineffective as a professional: too small to play the post, not quick enough to play the perimeter. He spent two seasons in the NBA, was traded twice and released. He toured around Europe, playing basketball in Spain, Greece and Poland. He even played a season in Argentina before retiring from professional basketball. From there, he worked as a car salesman, becoming the dealership’s marketing director before finishing the degree he started at UCLA.
Now, he leads a comfortable, but not extravagant life with his wife and three children, far removed from the glory days of the past. It might therefore be considered surprising that it is at this stage in his life that O’Bannon stands to make a greater impact on college sports in the United States than any athlete before him by forever altering how amateur athletics are defined in the country.
On July 21st, 2009, representatives for O’Bannon filed an antitrust lawsuit in federal court, alleging that former college football and basketball players are illegally denied a share of profits made by the NCAA through the sale of their image in DVDs, video games, photographs, apparel and other material. O’Bannon claims that the waiver college athletes sign handing over their names and images to the NCAA is a contract without negotiation. According to the lawsuit, when the NCAA sells a player’s likeness, they are conspiring with the purchaser to set the value of that likeness at zero, when it could potentially be worth more on the open market.
To read quotes from O’Bannon at the time, it seems all so simple.
I’ve always been one to wonder why former student athletes weren’t compensated for their games on television. The NCAA is making money off of DVDs and old reruns with people like me in it. Hey, I’m no longer in college. Something is wrong here.
When the NCAA tournament comes around, every year, the old games always seem to be on some classic sports channel. Someone will say, “Ed, I saw your games last night on TV. How much are you getting for royalties?” When I say “I’m not,” they look at me like something is seriously wrong. That’s really what this is about.
O’Bannon agreed to be the lead plaintiff after being approached by Sonny Vaccaro, a former shoe-marketing guru with Nike, Reebok and Adidas. Vaccaro has been an outspoken critic of the NCAA, even while offering sponsorship deals to universities and athletic conferences as a representative of the shoe companies. He even went so far as to volunteer his services as an unpaid consultant to the D.C. law firm that’s representing O’Bannon.
Other former student athletes, like former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller and the great Oscar Robertson, have since joined with O’Bannon in the hope of bringing a class action lawsuit against the NCAA and their co-defendants – EA Sports. This is a tremendously important possibility because, individually, athletes aren’t likely to make incredibly large amounts of money off of image sales, but together, the total sum they might be entitled to would be enough to drastically alter the way that the NCAA operates.
While a hearing for the class certification will begin on June 20th, the plaintiffs have already won a major victory in the case. On January 29th, a federal judge in California ruled that O’Bannon et al. could amend their claim to include current and former athletes as members of a potential class action suit. The inclusion of current NCAA basketball and football players, who unlike former players have their likeness represented in contemporary video games by their uniform number, height, weight, and birthplace, means a drastic increase to a potential payout of damages because of the four year statute of limitations on anti-trust cases that would have limited how much former athletes might gain.
In addition, the suit was also extended to cover live broadcasts of sporting events, further lengthening the list of those potentially affected by damages from the NCAA and video game manufacturers to include television networks and the athletic conferences that sell broadcast rights. Despite being a nonprofit organization that doesn’t have to pay taxes because of its association with higher education, the NCAA’s earnings are comparable to a large corporation, as evidenced by the 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise the men’s basketball tournament. This single deal, which was announced in 2010, distributes at least $740-million annually to NCAA member colleges.
If the lawsuit could be likened to a bundle of dynamite, January’s ruling added a thermonuclear war head. We now wait for the June hearing to see if it will be deployed.
To summarize, the athletes’ lawyers are seeking a portion of the revenues that the NCAA and Division I schools and conferences have gotten from TV contracts and video game sales since 2005. Most analysis suggests that the plaintiffs would be looking for a 50-50 split of the revenue from television sales and a third of the money earned through video games. If the plaintiffs win the June hearing and a class action suit is tried, a decision in their favor would force the NCAA and those who have made money off of its product to pay billions of dollars in damages.
Perhaps more important than dollars exchanging hands to sports fans is that a decision in the plaintiff’s favor could also force an unfair system to become more equitable. The NCAA doesn’t pay athletes a share of its profits on the basis of maintaining their amateur status. There are few issues in sports more enraging than the false virtues of amateurism, a value that the NCAA specifically depends on to exploit the entertainment value that student-athletes provide.
In the past, I’ve written about the origin of our strange worship of the Olympic ideal, which the briefest bit of critical thinking reveals to be born out of the ulterior motives of the privileged.
By the end of the 19th Century, the athletic abilities of the working class threatened the establishment. For decades, those in power had promoted athletic endeavors as a means of keeping their contemporary plebeians healthy and occupied, all while enjoying exclusive competitions among themselves which they believed, in their arrogance, to be at the highest level of sporting skill.
When working class athletes began proving themselves to be equal or superior to the privileged, French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin created the modern Olympic games – along with its regulations differentiating between amateurs and professionals – so as to keep out the hard-working riff-raff and celebrate the accomplishments of the socially and financially well-to-do.
If the upper class was going to lose its stranglehold on athletic supremacy, it could at least grasp onto an imagined moral high ground as consolation. Under the guise of promoting well-roundedness as a virtue through the original Greek ideal, the leaders of the modern Olympic revival ultimately reinforced the merits of their own status. After all, the aristocratic athlete was the only athlete who could logistically afford to maintain their amateur status.
Exclusion is one thing, servitude is another. The difference between these two negative phenomena is what makes the NCAA even more grotesque than the manipulating sports aristocracy of the past. Where de Coubertin embraced amateurism as a practice for his social class, the NCAA imposes it on young athletes. The supposed virtues of amateurism are made somewhat more acceptable when the ideals are embraced by someone who actually wants to be an amateur. It become exponentially more distasteful when amateurism is imposed on young athletes by a party whose financial well being is dependent on the actual laborers not being paid.
In addition to exploiting the athletes, the NCAA has gotten away with this by exploiting the public’s perception of amateurism, and the sentiment we attach to it. When we think of NCAA scandals, we remember individual cases of athletes receiving financial compensation to attend a particular university. We somehow imagine there to be some positive aspect to the pursuit of an amateur ideal, but if there is, it’s not based in reason or law. Meanwhile, the entire practice of the NCAA remains the biggest quiet scandal in sports.
While vehemently arguing against the plaintiff’s motions in court, the NCAA has largely been quiet outside of it. Any argument that they contrive against compensating their athletes depends on reinforcing the same sentiment or being wilfully ignorant to the fact that student athletes are worth more to their universities than a mere scholarship.
Ultimately, the worst case scenario for an NCAA university is that will have to either stop profiting from students or start paying them. How does such a scenario remain shocking?
If the NCAA doubts the value of their athletes’ reach, they only need to look at the television and video game contracts, or remember back to that NBA draft in Toronto, when fans of a team who hadn’t played a single game yet already knew the name of Ed O’Bannon. It’s a name the NCAA is even more familiar with right now.