ON THE EVE of the landmark O'Bannon v. NCAA trial, Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, huddled with his colleagues in a small conference room overlooking Oakland's Lake Merritt. The words "WAR ROOM" were written on a Post-it note attached to the doorframe. Around a lacquered table, a half-dozen lawyers and economists stared into laptops save for Hausfeld, who, at 68, still takes handwritten notes, peering through his round, wire-rimmed glasses like a courtly scrivener.
The O'Bannon case boils down to the question of whether the NCAA can legally prevent athletes from earning money on their names and identities, which are plastered on everything from video games to jerseys to ESPN Classic broadcasts. Andy Schwarz, a sports economist who has been picking apart the NCAA for over a decade, brought up Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney, who would have been multimillionaires years ago if not for the NCAA restrictions.
"You're going to have to help me out there," Hausfeld told Schwarz, sheepishly, "because I don't know who those people are."
Hausfeld wasn't kidding: He had no clue who Manziel and Clowney were. Just as he had no clue who O'Bannon -- the Final Four Most Outstanding Player of UCLA's 1995 title run -- was before O'Bannon agreed to place his name on the lawsuit five years ago. No clue who Oscar Robertson was before he was added as co-plaintiff. No clue about anything, really, related to sports, at least as it's played between the lines.
But Hausfeld does have one big idea -- that the people who run our games ought to play by the rules that govern society and industry -- and that has made him one of the most powerful people in sports. He has gone after the NCAA for allegedly operating as an illegal cartel. He has pursued the NFL, pushing the league to address the treatment of players in the areas of concussions and licensing rights. He's even brought heat on the National Federation of State High School Associations in an attempt to hold some entity accountable for the fact that prep football players are nearly twice as likely as college players to suffer a brain injury.
In the coming weeks, a judge will rule on the O'Bannon case, the greatest challenge to the NCAA's economic model in its 108-year history. Hanging in the balance is not just the battered ideal of amateurism -- and who gets access to the billions of dollars flowing through college sports -- but what the entertainment product fans consume will look like in the near future. Even a limited injunction could allow the next Manziel to sell his autograph without touching off a national scandal.
"A favorable ruling," Schwarz says, "will expose to the world that the emperor has no clothes."
Hausfeld is hardly the only class-action lawyer descending on sports: There are at least 350 cases pending in federal court against the NFL, the NCAA and the major athletic conferences, according to an analysis by "Outside the Lines," in what has become an industrywide attack over issues ranging from concussions to the distribution of prescription drugs by the NFL. The wave of litigation already has helped change how football -- from the NFL to Pop Warner -- deals with head injuries and has triggered a spate of reform proposals within the NCAA.