NCAA rejected in suit over amateurism

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Six weeks after the close of the historic Ed O’Bannon v. NCAA trial, U.S. District Judge Claudia Ann Wilken issued a ruling Friday that dealt a death blow to the ideal of amateurism in college sports and has the potential to alter the athletic landscape on college campuses across the country.

Judge Wilken had heard 15 days of testimony in her Oakland courtroom to decide the landmark case that put the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s current business model under a public microscope for the first time. At issue was whether the NCAA, by restricting Division I-A football players and Division I basketball players from profiting from the use of their names, images and likenesses in TV broadcasts and video games, was restraining competition in the marketplace and therefore was in violation of antitrust law.

In a 99-page ruling, Judge Wilken wrote that “the Court will enjoin the NCAA from enforcing any rules or bylaws that would prohibit its member schools and conferences from offering their [Division I-A] football or Division I basketball recruits a limited share of the revenues generated from the use of their names, images and likenesses in addition to a full grant-in-aid [scholarship].”

Judge Wilken said the injunction will prohibit the NCAA from enforcing any rules that would prevent “its member schools and conferences from offering to deposit a limited share of licensing revenue in trust for their [Division I-A]football and Division I basketball recruits, payable when they leave school or their eligibility expires.

“Although the injunction will permit the NCAA to set a cap on the amount of money that may be held in trust, it will prohibit the NCAA from setting a cap of less than $5,000 [in 2014 dollars] for every year that the student-athlete remains academically eligible to compete.”

During the three-week trial in June, many doomsday scenarios were presented by the NCAA attorneys about what a world in which college athletes were paid a fair market value would look like. They presented figures that theorized major-college football and basketball players would be receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Judge Wilken’s figure of $5,000 a year will probably keep Armageddon from occurring but will certainly challenge programs to figure out a new way to split up the ever-growing pie.

“None of the other evidence presented at trial suggests that the NCAA’s legitimate procompetitive goals will be undermined by allowing such a modest payment,” Judge Wilken wrote.

If schools adopted the $5,000-per-year trust fund model for each player, it would amount to nearly $500,000 a year total to pay the 85 football players and 13 basketball players on scholarship — a drop in the bucket for many of the larger universities that compete most often for national championships.

Judge Wilken wrote that the NCAA can continue to enforce rules governing individuals receiving payments, which was another measured approach to keeping the floodgates from fully opening in regard to player compensation. For instance, under her ruling, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy last season, would be worth the same as the team’s punter. Future lawsuits against the NCAA, of which there are several brewing in court, will probably have more impact than the O’Bannon ruling.

Judge Wilken said that the injunction will not be stayed, and that the changes would not take effect until July 1, 2016, to allow for the completion of the current recruiting cycle.

“The beneficiaries are the kids who won’t know what happened today,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the Trafford native and former shoe marketing wizard who persuaded Mr. O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star, to be the lead plaintiff five years ago along with 19 others. “The ones who are really going to make out in the long run are kids who aren’t in college yet. We’ve opened that door. Pandora’s box is open now.”

For 60 years, the NCAA has used the ideal of amateurism to avoid rulings such as this one.

“The NCAA asserts that its challenged rules promote consumer demand for its product by preserving its tradition of amateurism in college sports,” Judge Wilken wrote. “It relies on historical evidence, consumer survey data, and lay witness testimony to support this assertion. The Court does not find this evidence sufficient to justify the challenged restraint.”

She recalled in her ruling that NCAA president Mark Emmert testified that “the rules over the 100-year history of the NCAA around amateurism have focused on, first of all, making sure that any resources that are provided to a student-athlete are only those that are focused on his or her getting an education.” She then responded, “The historical evidence presented at trial, however, demonstrates that the association’s amateurism rules have not been nearly as consistent as Dr. Emmert represents.”

The NCAA’s chief legal officer, Donald Remy, issued a statement after the ruling: "We note that the Court's decision sets limits on compensation, but are reviewing the full decision and will provide further comment later.“

J. Brady McCollough: and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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