OAKLAND, Calif. – College football and men’s basketball players seeking a share of the billions of dollars their sports generate for the NCAA went to trial on Monday with a former UCLA basketball standout’s testimony he spent four years as “an athlete masquerading as a student.”
The testimony by Ed O’Bannon, lead plaintiff in a class-action antitrust suit, came as the NCAA announced a $20 million settlement of a related case that will give players from 2005 through 2014 part of the revenue from the use of their names and images in video games made by Electronic Arts.
The settlement adds to a $40 million agreement the Redwood City, Calif., firm reached earlier with the players, but also represents a breakthrough: It is the first time the NCAA has consented to payments related to college athletes’ participation in sports.
While agreeing to a type of royalty for the video games, the NCAA is disputing the broader principle of the O’Bannon suit that part of the big money in college sports, mostly from telecasts of the games, rightly belongs to the players.
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The association, which forbids players from receiving payments as athletes, says paying them would destroy the amateurism that has been the backbone of college sports.
The trial, the first of its kind nationwide, is scheduled to last about three weeks before Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who is hearing the case without a jury.
A central dispute is whether the NCAA and its member schools — which invariably describe the players as “student-athletes” — are protecting them or exploiting them.
“I was there to play basketball. School wasn’t much of a priority for me,” said O’Bannon, 41, a forward on UCLA’s team that won the 1995 national-championship game at the Kingdome in Seattle.
O’Bannon spent two years in the NBA and seven years playing pro ball in Europe, and works these days in sales and marketing for an auto dealer in Las Vegas.
Attending UCLA on an athletic scholarship, O’Bannon estimated basketball consumed 40 to 45 hours a week of his time during the season, playing, practicing, working out, watching film and traveling. School work took up about 12 hours a week, he estimated.
At the advice of campus counselors, O’Bannon said, he took only the courses that fit his basketball schedule, passed up some classes he wanted to take, and focused on maintaining the “C” average that kept him eligible for the team. He was seven courses short of graduating after his senior year, he said, but returned to UCLA in 2011, took the classes and got his degree.
During cross-examination, NCAA lawyer Glenn Pomerantz grilled O’Bannon on the many benefits of his college days — a free education, including room and board, expert coaching and mentoring, the fame of a star whose games were televised each weekend, and a White House meeting with President Bill Clinton after the national championship.
“I enjoyed my experience there,” O’Bannon said of his time at UCLA.
But he said he no longer considers revenue-generating college players “amateurs” — a description he accepted when questioned at a deposition in 2011 — and resisted the “student-athlete” label.
“I considered myself an athlete” even though “I was called a student-athlete all the time I was there,” O’Bannon said.
He said his thinking has evolved since he filed the lawsuit, and he now believes any athletes who generate televised revenues — high-school players and even Little Leaguers — should be entitled to a share.
The suit was filed by two dozen former football and men’s basketball players, who seek an injunction that would stop the NCAA from enforcing its prohibition in those sports.
It would not directly affect women’s basketball or other sports, but could set a precedent for all college athletics.
The plaintiffs also presented their first expert witness, Stanford economist Roger Noll, who said the NCAA’s use of its marketplace power is suppressing competition for licensing products, from video games to bobblehead dolls, and harming the consuming public as well as the athletes.