The Old Ball Coach knew. So did the conference commissioners—at least four of them seemed certain. Ed O’Bannon’s lawyers had taken the NCAA to school.
We all watched closely those three weeks in June as the plaintiffs’ team, representing a class of big-time athletes who felt aggrieved over their place in college sports, pulled out quiver after quiver—slowly, surely shooting down the defense.
The players were seeking a new kind of system, one that would allow future generations to earn money from the commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses. And their stories were convincing. Mr. O’Bannon, a former UCLA star, told of spending 45 or more hours a week on his sport and rarely attending class.
"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," Mr. O’Bannon testified before Judge Claudia Wilken, who presided over the case in a U.S. district court in California. "I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play."
Tyrone Prothro, a former Alabama football player whose remarkable catch in 2005 was voted the year’s Pontiac Game Changing Performance, helped his university collect $100,000 toward a scholarship fund. He described a career-ending injury and having to take out $10,000 in loans because his scholarship did not cover his expenses.
Years later he wrote a book about his experience. When he asked the university if he could include a few pictures from his playing days, he was told him he would have to buy the images.
"Of course I could have purchased some pictures, but I didn’t feel I should have to pay any kind of money for my own photos," Mr. Prothro told reporters after testifying at the trial. "I didn't think it was fair at all."
In her ruling, Judge Wilken refuted the NCAA’s justifications for limiting player pay, including its argument that the restraints were necessary to allow for competitive balance and to help integrate academics and athletics.
The judge’s injunction would give big-time football and basketball players the opportunity to earn up to $5,000 in trust for each year they compete.
Whether they will ever see that money is another question. The NCAA says it plans to appeal the ruling. And colleges are already talking about curbing the commercial use of players’ names and images to limit what they have to pay the athletes. Colleges say they don’t make much money on jersey sales and other licensed merchandise, so maybe more of that business will just go away.
The judge didn’t go so far as to require players to graduate to earn the money. But in what could be the most significant part of her ruling, she left intact many of the NCAA’s rules—emphasizing the importance of the association’s academic policies, including its efforts to monitor colleges’ academic-progress rates and require that athletes meet certain academic benchmarks.
Under the new system, athletes’ own incentives to perform well academically would remain the same, Judge Wilken said, particularly if they were required to meet those academic requirements as a condition of receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses.
"Such a requirement," she wrote, "might even strengthen student-athletes’ incentives to focus on schoolwork."
Many people were afraid of what might happen if the O’Bannon case made it to trial. The NCAA has clung so tightly to its amateur ideals, it was hard to imagine what a system might look like where players were compensated.
Judge Wilken picked apart the association’s amateurism defense, but she was sensitive to its efforts to make education a priority. Her ruling gives the NCAA the tools to create a new academic focus.
Over all, legal experts said, she offered a fairly narrow opinion, giving clues as to how she might resolve other NCAA disputes before her.
Legal observers said that one case in particular, which challenges colleges’ failure to meet athletes’ full cost of attendance, makes the NCAA look especially vulnerable. But another claim that seeks to invalidate all NCAA limits on the amount of compensation a university can provide to top-level football and basketball players may not be as stiff a challenge.
Friday’s ruling came down within hours of NCAA leaders’ approving a new governance system for big-time college sports, a change they have been working on for years. In a statement released on Sunday, the NCAA said the new system would allow colleges to better support athletes, one of the central components of Judge Wilken’s injunction.
So far, colleges’ efforts to take care of players have not impressed the regulators. In the coming months, expect to see even more scrutiny from Congress, whose members have shown renewed interest in picking the NCAA apart.
Steve Spurrier, the University of South Carolina’s football coach and a longtime advocate for players’ rights, didn’t mince words when reacting to the ruling.
"We all thought O’Bannon was going to win, didn’t we?" said the Old Ball Coach. "He had a good case."
For some critics, that begged an important question: With the outcome apparent to so many, why would the NCAA put up such a fight? Maybe next time, critics said, college leaders will put more energy into fixing what's wrong and resolving cases before they make it to trial.