NCAA athletes get their day in court


After nearly five years of maneuvers and machinations that would baffle a law professor, former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon will walk into a federal courtroom Monday as the star witness in a trial that will decide whether the NCAA must pay college athletes for its use of their likenesses in television broadcasts, video games and other consumer products.

The trial, in Oakland, Calif., comes after more than two dozen lawyers filed some 1,300 related court documents since 2009. It comes after numerous NCAA attempts to terminate O'Bannon's quest, all of them unsuccessful. It comes after the case has been consolidated, de-consolidated and partially settled.

And, most important, it comes at a critical time in the history of college sports, when the power conferences take in more than a billion dollars in a single year, when numerous head coaches are paid $7 million per year, when assistant coaches can make $800,000, and when universities are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on stadiums and training facilities.

Former athletes like O'Bannon and many current athletes are no longer willing to settle for a full scholarship and the glory of the games; they are asking for their share, and they're doing so aggressively. In addition to O'Bannon's lawsuit, 24 other legal actions are pending against the NCAA, all of them seeking a sharing of wealth in one form or another. In the most dramatic of the lawsuits, often referred to as the "Kessler case," current players are seeking what was once unthinkable -- an injunction that would eliminate the NCAA's bar against paying salaries and force big-time football and basketball schools to pay players in addition to granting scholarships.

While fighting to defend their organization and its core ideals of the student-athlete and amateurism, NCAA officials also are preparing to intervene in a historic proceeding before the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. The five-member board is reviewing a decision made in Chicago that Northwestern University football players are employees and can form a union.

As if the mass of litigation and the unprecedented labor activism among college athletes were not enough, the NCAA is also the target of what may be a major reform effort in the U.S. Congress led by bipartisan group in the House of Representatives.

"O'Bannon represents a watershed moment for the NCAA," said Northeastern University School of Law professor Roger Abrams. "When combined with the Northwestern football team unionization effort, the case raises the question whether the NCAA must totally re-conceptualize its approach to regulating college athletics."

The crossroads that the NCAA's 1,066 member schools now face formed in earnest in 2009, when lawsuits like the O'Bannon case took hold. But a seminal article by the historian of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch, in The Atlantic in October 2011, shaped public opinion by transforming the NCAA's difficulties from a series of occasional scandals to a national issue of public policy.

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