In a decision that could drastically reshape the world of college sports, a federal judge ruled Friday the NCAA’s decades-old rules barring payments to athletes were in violation of antitrust laws.
In a 99-page ruling, Judge Claudia Wilken of U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., delivered a resounding rebuke to the foundation of the NCAA, issuing an injunction against current rules that prohibit athletes from earning money from the use of their names and images in video games and television broadcasts.
The decision would allow universities to offer Division I football and men’s basketball players trust funds that can be accessed after their eligibility ends, giving players a chance to share in the billions of dollars in television revenue they help generate for their colleges and the NCAA.
Wilken said she expects the schools to shoulder the additional costs.
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Advocates for student-athletes hailed the ruling as a major victory.
“The decision goes behind the curtain of amateurism and says there’s nothing there,” plaintiffs’ attorney William Isaacson said.
Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, filed the lawsuit in 2009 after seeing himself in a video game years after the end of his college career.
O’Bannon wondered why others were making money off him.
“The main thing is you control your likeness,” O’Bannon said in an interview Friday night. “It means everything because that’s what this whole thing is about. I’m really happy players can control their likeness because in any other walk of life, you can. I never understood why the student-athlete wasn’t able to and now he can.”
The NCAA said it disagreed with the decision, but was still reviewing it.
The O’Bannon case was the most prominent of several recent challenges to the NCAA principle of amateurism. On Thursday, the NCAA voted to grant a significant degree of autonomy for setting athletes’ benefits to the five highest-profile conferences. As a result of that vote, by next season the 65 schools in those conferences were likely to offer their athletes a few thousand dollars more than current scholarships.
The O’Bannon ruling could change the fabric of big-time college sports by allowing schools to recruit players by offering them more than scholarships beginning in 2015. Schools could provide athletes trust funds, as well as annual payments that reflect the full cost of attending school.
The NCAA has long argued its amateur rules, while potentially restrictive in the marketplace, were vital for its business model.
In a partial victory for the NCAA, though, Wilken said the body could set a cap on the money paid to athletes, as long as it allows at least $5,000 per athlete per year of competition.
Individual schools could offer less money, she said, but only if they don’t unlawfully conspire among themselves to set those amounts.
That means football players at the biggest schools and Division I basketball players who are on rosters for four years could potentially get around $20,000 when they leave school.
Wilken said she set the $5,000 annual threshold to balance the NCAA’s fears about huge payments to players.
Former athletes will not be paid, because they gave up their right to damages in a pretrial move so the case would be heard by a judge, not a jury.