Federal Ruling May Mean Big Changes For NCAA Players

College athletes might begin to see some financial return for their efforts on the court. Mike Pesca of Slate.com discusses the week's sports news with NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

OK. It's time now for sports. Big changes are in the air for college athletics this week. Players might begin to see some financial return for their efforts on the court. A federal judge ruled that the NCAAC must throw out its ban on players accepting payment for commercial use of their names, images and likenesses. To discuss what this might mean, we are joined now by Mike Pesca, the host of "The Gist" podcast from slate.com. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hello, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just give us a brief rundown? Refresh our memories on this lawsuit.

PESCA: So Ed O'Bannon, former UCLA basketball player - since retired - is looking at a video game, and he's like, wait, that's me. That's totally me. It's my number. It looks like me, but I made no money on this videogame. He brings a suit. Nineteen others or so join him. And it goes beyond videogames because this names, images and likeness - you know, every time they put us on TV - isn't it us? Isn't it us, the players, who are being sold as a product? So the suit really is all about amateurism and the idea of amateurism and the idea that colleges can make so much money. You know, you total the NCAA basketball contract, it's worth billion-plus dollars - so much money. Coaches can make money, and schools can make money. But the players can't make money, and so this is a lawsuit - this was a lawsuit to challenge that, the fundamentals of the NCAA, if you will.

WERTHEIMER: The NCAA has always argued that fans of college sports love the amateur standing of the players. They are not professionals. How did that old standby go over in the courtroom before her Honor this time?

PESCA: Yeah, so Judge Claudia Wilken, she's great. She's not a sports fan, but she sort of voiced what you would hope for in a judge, which is someone to have an outside perspective to say, wait a minute, wait a minute - you're saying that your coach gets $9 million to make his players wear a certain kind of shoe, but the players can't get a cent? And as far as that argument that you presented, which is what the NCAA always says - oh, amateurism is so fundamental. It's why people like the NCAA. You know, the lawyers for the plaintiffs just cited case after case, study after study, where this wasn't the case. They talked about, for instance, Johnny Manziel was suspended for not being an amateur, for taking some money, you know, for autographs. And when he got into the game for Texas A&M, there was a huge cheer. So there's so much evidence that fans of NCAA like their teams and like Texas A&M, and if the players were amateurs, if the players got a few thousand dollars, it wouldn't have changed the perception of it. And so many of the arguments, the economic arguments, fell away in Claudia Wilken's mind in her decision.

WERTHEIMER: This isn't the only news out of the NCAAC, Mike. Their board of directors voted to let the Big Five conferences write their own rules. Is that big?

PESCA: Yeah, it is big. And when taken in conjunction with this ruling, where the judge said that colleges can put aside a stipend of up to $5,000 - and that won't start until 2016 -and now these big conferences are writing their own rules. And one of the rules is pretty much more money for the students, it could change a lot. I think the news that you're talking about with the big conferences is more reaction to this lawsuit to the threat of unionization among some football teams.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

PESCA: So all these currents that are challenging the NCAA as we know it - add it all up, big things can be afoot on how we think about college sports.

WERTHEIMER: Mike Pesca of slate.com, thank you very much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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