NCAA Litigation May Lead to Compensation of Student Athletes

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It is well known that student athletes do not receive any of the revenue that their schools generate from ticket sales, television revenues, jersey sales, or similar profit-generating business transactions arising out of college athletics.

However, former University of California at Los Angeles basketball player, Ed O’Bannon has commenced an action in the Northern District of California against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Collegiate Licensing Company seeking to recover damages from the licensing of his likeness to entities such as EA Sports, which produces popular video games that allow players to coach or play as avatars representing scholar athletes on their favorite teams.  In addition to video games, the action challenges the use of student athlete likenesses in television programs, trading cards and other commercial ventures without pay.  O’Bannon is now asking United States District Judge Claudia Wilken to certify a class or classes of former NCAA basketball and football players.

All NCAA student-athletes are asked to sign Form 08-3a, which grants the NCAA permission to use their images and likenesses as a condition of participating in college sports.  O’Bannon alleges that the NCAA manipulates 08-3a and its policies on amateurism in deceiving student-athletes out of compensation in perpetuity for the use of their likenesses.

There were three (3) key developments in this case last week:

On Wednesday, July 17, 2013, the NCAA announced that it was NOT renewing its license agreement with EA Sports to produce the NCAA Football video game after next year, citing business reasons and litigation costs amid a raft of lawsuits involving the game. It appears that the NCAA would rather forego the revenue from this stream rather than deal with the complicated issue of whether to and how to compensate student athletes for the commercial use of their likeness.

On Thursday, June 18, 2013, six (6) current NCAA Division I football players joined the case as the plaintiffs:

  • Arizona Linebacker Jake Fischer
  • Arizona Place Kicker Jake Smith
  • Clemson Defensive Back Darius Robinson
  • Vanderbilt Linebacker Chase Garnham
  • Minnesota Tight End Moses Alipate
  • Minnesota Wide Receiver Victor Keise

Until Thursday, the named plaintiffs in were former college athletes, headed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, and former NBA greats Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell. Most observers believe that the addition of the current players will make it easier for the plaintiffs to attain class certification.

On Friday, June 19, 2013, it was confirmed that more than 150 colleges, conferences and bowl games have approved a three-year contract extension with EA Sports. While EA Sports will not be able to produce a game called “NCAA Football ‘15,” it may still produce a video game featuring many Division I schools called “College Football ‘15.” It is known that some Division I schools did not agree to renew a license to EA Sports; however, it is not known whether any of those schools have top football programs.

The court heard argument on class certification on June 20, 2013, and a trial is scheduled for June 9, 2014. The outcome of this case may forever change the meaning of “scholar athlete” and NCAA rules and regulations concerning the ability of collegiate athletes to receive compensation while competing in NCAA athletics.

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