Game changer

"Because he's good at recruiting talent," Rascher said. "And you can't pay the talent."

"This is legal?" Nadel responded.

That inquiry ultimately led to one of the first class-action antitrust cases against the NCAA. Rascher and fellow economist Schwarz hoped the case would go to trial. But in 2008, attorneys accepted a $10 million settlement from the NCAA for "bona fide educational expenses" to be distributed to some 12,000 athletes over a three-year period. The lawyers made almost as much money. The NCAA emerged unscathed. Schwarz and Rascher were furious. Hausfeld, who hired them as expert witnesses, gave their cause new life.

All Hausfeld needed was a name to attach to the case.

"After the hug, that's when I had to go out and find people," Vaccaro says.

Over the next two months, he called up nearly a dozen prominent players, trying to persuade one to take on the NCAA. None would agree. Then one day, O'Bannon called him. He explained to Vaccaro how a friend had asked him one day, "Want to see yourself in a video game?" The game featured a UCLA power forward with O'Bannon's height, weight, skin tone, No. 31 and left-handed shot. He even had the player's bald head.

O'Bannon wondered how it was possible that he wasn't getting paid. Vaccaro put him in touch with Hausfeld, whose lack of sports knowledge did not bother O'Bannon. "I can appreciate someone who is of a certain cause, not a fan but someone who realizes right is right and wrong is wrong," he says. Ramogi Huma, who has led the recent campaign to unionize college athletes, says Hausfeld is "always on the right side, always fighting for the little guy."

During a bruising deposition in 2012, an NCAA attorney asked Vaccaro whether he had a criminal record. Hausfeld halted the proceedings and accused the NCAA of acting like a state police agency. He asked the lawyer whether he had a criminal record.

"Have you? Now you answer," Hausfeld insisted. "It's your turn."

Vaccaro says the retort gave him confidence to proceed, knowing Hausfeld had his back. "Michael is like that guy in the Jimmy Stewart story ["It's a Wonderful Life"], that angel looking over me."

IN 2011, HAUSFELD found a new cause: retired NFL players.

Their plight immediately resonated with him. Many of the retirees lacked health insurance, and, for those who played in the 1970s and 1980s, when the NFL was transforming into a $10 billion industry, their pensions were low relative to other major sports leagues. There was growing scientific evidence that football-related head trauma was causing brain damage in an alarming number of players, but the NFL had spent years rejecting the findings. That year, as a lockout paralyzed the sport, Hausfeld filed a lawsuit on behalf of former Vikings defensive end Carl Eller and other players to try to gain a foothold in the labor talks.

The effort failed. Hausfeld spent hours sitting outside the negotiating room while the NFL and the current players settled on an agreement widely viewed as a victory for the owners, a loss for the current players and troubling for the retirees. Hausfeld soon filed another lawsuit -- Eller II -- this time against the NFL Players Association. That effort also failed, but Hausfeld says the process gave him insight into the NFL's "victimization" of the older players.

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