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Ed O’Bannon Takes Aim at the NCAA

In my story this week about Sonny Vaccaro, the erstwhile shoe-company guru who is now on a quest to help college athletes share in the riches of college sports, I quote Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA star who filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA last year about a related issue.

Vaccaro and O’Bannon go way back. They’ve known each other for more than two decades, since a teenage O’Bannon attended Vaccaro’s Nike basketball camp. More recently Vaccaro served as a matchmaker between the former Bruin and the law firm of Hausfeld LLP, which now represents him in court. (Vaccaro is an unpaid consultant in the case.)

The federal lawsuit, pending in a San Francisco court, is a potential game-changer. O’Bannon claims that the NCAA violates federal antitrust law by barring former college athletes, once their playing days are over, from profiting from NCAA or college-licensed products—video games, classic highlights, and so on—that use their “images and likenesses.” 

I recently caught up by phone with O’Bannon, who now lives in Las Vegas with his wife and children. We talked mostly about the lawsuit, which he filed a year ago this month. His main concern, he says, is the issue of compensation. If the NCAA is going to put athletes’ names and pictures to commercial use, he said, the athletes should be compensated accordingly.

“Things need to change in how the NCAA does business,” said O’Bannon, who was the most -valuable player in the 1995 Final Four. “And what better time than now? What better person than me?”

O’Bannon is not the first former athlete to question the NCAA’s use of his image and likeness in recent years. Sam Keller, a former quarterback at Nebraska and Arizona State, sued Electronic Arts and the NCAA last year for using players’ images in football and basketball video games. (That case has been consolidated with O’Bannon’s case.)

Others have never made it as far as filing a lawsuit, said O’Bannon’s lawyer, Jon T. King, of the Hausfeld firm. “There are several individuals that tried to look into this on their own, but they didn’t have the power of a class action,” he told me in an interview.

In terms of antitrust law, a legal challenge to the practice of using athletes’ images in commercial ventures “was bound to happen,” he said. “It was really just a matter of time before the right people found the right law firms to look into this. It wasn’t hard to realize there’s one group of performers that have been excluded from compensation their entire lives.”

Still, for O’Bannon, the decision of whether to become the lead plaintiff in a case against the powerful governing body of college sports involved a fair amount of soul-searching. 

“It was kind of a hard decision,” he said. “I have an image of someone who doesn’t really—who hasn’t gotten in trouble, hasn’t gotten arrested, none of those things.” By filing a major lawsuit, he said, “I could possibly take a hit as far as my image is concerned.”

But after much discussion with his wife and with Vaccaro, he concluded that the pros outweighed the cons “tremendously.”

In the year since the lawsuit was filed, O’Bannon said he has gotten nothing but positive feedback. “I get calls from guys all the time saying, ‘Hey, great job, good luck,’ and ‘I can’t believe they’re doing what they’re doing. You guys have got a chance to win.’”

“I love the fact that I’ve gotten a chance to represent a lot of voices,” O’Bannon said. “I’m going to do the best I can.”

Photograph: Getty Images

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