Judge Considers Class Action Status For O'Bannon V. NCAA

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A federal judge on Thursday hears arguments over whether a lawsuit against the NCAA should be expanded. The case was brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon. He contends the NCAA unfairly benefits from student athletes by forcing them to sign away their licensing rights.


Today in Oakland, California a pivotal moment in a lawsuit against the organization that oversees college athletics, the NCAA. A federal court judge will hear arguments on whether or not to expand a lawsuit from a handful of original plaintiffs, to potentially thousands. If that happens, it could cost the NCAA billions of dollars and change the nature of college sports.

NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Good morning


MONTAGNE: So that's a pretty big possibility there. Before we talk about the question before the judge today, though, remind us what this case is about.

GOLDMAN: Yes, former UCLA baseball star Ed O'Bannon - he led Bruins to the title in 1995 - he filed lawsuit in 2009 against NCAA and CLC, Collegiate Licensing Company, after seeing his likeness in a sports videogame. Now, O'Bannon thought he should be compensated for his image being used in those videogames and other commercial enterprises. So he joined his suit with one by former college football quarterback Sam Keller. The list of plaintiffs includes former college and NBA stars Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell,

And one of the key components of suit is allegation of anti-trust violations. The suit says NCAA and other defendants conspired to not pay college athletes.

MONTAGNE: What's the NCCA's response to that?

GOLDMAN: They tried and failed to dismiss it. The NCAA argues it's never prevented former student athletes from licensing their images. Also, the NCAA is very worried about the scope of the suit, which potentially includes current athletes and the use of their images in televised games; meaning March Madness, BCS football games. Considering the billions of dollars the NCAA and conferences rake in from TV contracts, this has considerably upped the stakes and potential losses for the defendants.

MONTAGNE: OK, so what exactly is happening in court today?

GOLDMAN: U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken will hear arguments for and against certifying the plaintiffs into a class. That would make it a class action lawsuit. Now, the plaintiffs want to get class certification, that would mean potentially thousands of former and current college athletes would join the suit in one class. And the potential payout would grow astronomically if plaintiffs were successful, not to mention how that would change the fundamental principle, some say illusion, of amateurism in big time college sports. So a lot riding on judge's decision, it's expected by end of summer.

MONTAGNE: And now, of course, we're hearing doomsday scenarios about the death of the NCCA.

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah. The worst case for NCAA is if judge certifies plaintiffs as one big class of former and current players. The potential liability, if it goes to trial and the plaintiffs win, that could be huge. Money would be awarded in damages to former players and money would be set aside in trust for current athletes. The revenue hit on the NCAA could seriously damage that organization, some say sink it. And the doomsday scenario goes that you'd be left with super rich conferences that could afford paying athletes, and then those that simply give up rather than lose lots of money.

Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany said if case results in athletes getting paid, Division 1 schools would move down to Division 3 - where that wouldn't happen. And Bloomberg View sports columnist Jonathan Mahler had a funny take on that. He wrote, the early line on the upcoming Amherst versus Ohio State game: Ohio State by 117 and a half.

MONTAGNE: Briefly, what are the chances of it really going that far?

GOLDMAN: Most sports legal experts don't see it if class certification happens. Many believe the NCAA would cut its losses and settle for a large chunk of money, but not enough to sink the organization.

MONTAGNE: NPR sports correspondent, Tom Goldman, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.


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