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A Judge Just Opened The Door For College Athletes To Sue For TV Money. About Time.

Back in 2009, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon led a group of athletes in filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA regarding the use of their likenesses in promotional materials. The suit was immediately recognized to have far-reaching implications for the NCAA if O’Bannon’s side were to prevail, as it contests the terms of a document college athletes have to sign to gain eligibility to play. From the above-linked piece by SI’s Michael McCann:

O’Bannon v. NCAA stems from a series of documents Division I student-athletes are required to sign as part of their participation in college sports. Form 08-3a (the “Student-Athlete” statement) is one such document. Among other conditions, it specifies, “You authorize the NCAA . . . to use your name or picture to generally promote NCAA championships or other NCAA events, activities or programs.” By signing the statement, student-athletes relinquish in perpetuity all future rights in the NCAA’s licensing of their images and likenesses.

As it stood, the suit was big, but there was only so far it could go, because the plaintiff consisted entirely of former athletes – any footage they would stand to profit from, if they won the suit, would be archival. But the biggest money in college sports, of course, is in the marketing of – and the live televising of – current college athletes. (See here for an example of how big that money can get.) However, more recently, the plaintiff added to their suit that players deserved a cut of live broadcast revenue, which would fold the interests of current players into the suit. The NCAA did not like this, and wanted the live broadcast rights part of the suit dismissed.

But yesterday, Judge Claudia Wilken dismissed the NCAA’s motion to prevent athletes from seeking a cut of live broadcast money. This opens up a legal avenue for current players to seek a share of this extremely large piece of the NCAA’s revenue pie, and could have even bigger implications down the line than the initial lawsuit. Here’s ESPN’s Tom Farrey discussing the ruling:

Of course, there’s no guarantee this will lead to an upending of the NCAA’s business model, especially not anytime soon – any lawsuit filed on behalf of current players would undoubtedly take years to sort out – just look at the O’Bannon suit. But to us, it’s one more sign that college players getting paid beyond scholarships in some way is an inevitability. It’s going to happen – like Howard Schnellenberger once said about Louisville football and the national championship, the only variable is time. A judge’s ruling here, an Atlantic cover story there – these things are building up, chipping away at the public’s opinion of the NCAA.

And as the NCAA continues to publicly embarrass itself, how could anyone argue that’s a bad thing at this point? Let’s revisit that SI piece we linked earlier. Here’s what the NCAA is supposedly fighting for:

In the NCAA’s view, however, these documents [that players are required to sign, forfeiting image licensing rights] promote the NCAA’s core mission: the integration of intercollegiate athletics into higher education and the promotion of student-athletes’ educational experiences.

The documents do not do this, and that is not the NCAA’s core mission. The NCAA’s core mission is self-perpetuation, protection of the status quo that keeps those involved able to hold onto their positions of power – and the high salaries that come with those positions – at the expense of the kids most responsible for those cushy positions existing to begin with. Can a kid really not be a college athlete if they make a few bucks off, say, selling their autograph, or their school selling apparel that’s obviously about them? Or if they get a cut of TV deals for which they’re primarily responsible? The NCAA’s stance is no, they can’t. Fewer and fewer people are buying it. Here’s hoping a court of law won’t buy it either.

[h/t Dave Zirin]

Getty photo, by Streeter Lecka

  • Anonymous

    There are two, in my opinion, rather sound arguments against this being a good thing.

    First, and increased funneling of top-tier talent to schools with big-time TV contracts. This already exists, but would only increase that much more if these changes occur.

    Second, uneven disbursement of funds, and not just between players at different schools, but potentially within the same school. If a QB’s likeness is used in a commercial, but not an offensive lineman, whose to argue the QB doesn’t deserve a bigger cut of the funds? It was, after all, his likeness used to increase revenue, not the lineman’s.

  • Anonymous

    It’s true that it would still be a far from perfect world, but in my opinion it’d still be better than the current setup. As for your first point, it may increase that funneling, but as you said, it exists already – I’m not sure how much of a difference this could even make.

    As for the second point, if the QB gets a bigger cut of the funds because he’s the one the school/NCAA marketed… then, well, shouldn’t he get a bigger cut? Again, nothing’s going to lead to a perfect solution, but I think the players being cut off from getting a share of revenue is a more unjust situation than anything that would result if they were to get a share.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, this is also the main argument against athletes getting sponsorship deals. I mean, how many athletes would really make money from advertisers. The stars in obsessed areas — the Denard Robinsons, AJ McCarrons, Manti Te’o's — of course they would. But is anyone that isn’t a skill player or a supreme talent/likable guy like Te’o going to benefit at all?

    And, probably even more importantly, virtually nobody outside of football or basketball would garner a modicum of interest. Should the NCAA revamp a monstrous system to make a new, really complicated one that won’t help 99.9% of its athletes? If its mission is really what it says, then this isn’t really important.

    *(Not saying I agree with this, but it’s a very reasonable argument)

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