O’Bannon case holds important implications for college athletics

Anne Mueller and Thomas Hunt

The recent start of the O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) federal trial comes on the heels of several major legal announcements regarding intercollegiate sports. The first concerned an agreement by Electronic Arts Inc. (EA) and the Collegiate Licensing Company, the NCAA’s licensing agent, to pay out $40 million to those college football and basketball players who appeared in EA Sports’ video games after 2003. EA Sports and the NCAA ended their licensing agreement last year. Moreover, the NCAA announced this June 9 that it had agreed to a settlement of $20 million to end similar claims against it regarding the video games. In addition, Northwestern University scholarship football players were recognized early this spring as employees with a right to unionize by the Chicago regional arm of the National Labor Relations Board.

A win by the athletes in the O’Bannon case would accelerate this strong momentum toward change in intercollegiate sport. In the class action lawsuit, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon argues on behalf of his fellow plaintiffs that the NCAA violates U.S. antitrust law by profiting from the use of athletes’ names, images and likenesses in various media outlets. The NCAA maintains that student-athletes are just that — students first, and athletes second and that they are fairly compensated through scholarships, stipends and the opportunity to compete. The athletes, on the other hand, believe they are entitled to compensation far beyond those benefits given the level of financial success enjoyed by the NCAA and its member institutions. As it currently stands, NCAA athletes sign a waiver relinquishing their intellectual property rights upon entering college. 

The landscape of intercollegiate sports — including athletics here at UT — will change dramatically if the NCAA loses the O’Bannon case. And most legal experts believe that athletes will indeed come out on top if the trial proceeds to conclusion. This makes a multi-million dollar settlement highly likely. By agreeing to such a painful sum, the NCAA might just put off what many are already calling its day of reckoning.

Hunt is an assistant professor of kinesiology and health education. Mueller is a graduate student in the same department.