Ed O'Bannon on stand in federal court

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The battle to give top football and basketball players a cut of the billions of dollars flowing into college athletics began in earnest Monday with former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon taking the stand in federal court to describe how he spent long hours working on his game and as few as possible on his grades.

The lead plaintiff in a landmark antitrust suit against the NCAA said his goal at UCLA wasn't to get a degree but to get two years of college experience before being drafted into the NBA.

"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," O'Bannon said. "I was there strictly to play basketball. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play."

O'Bannon portrayed himself as a dedicated athlete who would stay after games to work on his shot if he played poorly but an indifferent student at best. His job at UCLA, he said, was to play basketball, which took up so much time that just making it to class a few hours a day was difficult.

O'Bannon, who led UCLA to a national championship in 1995, said he spent 40 to 45 hours a week either preparing for games or playing them and only about 12 hours a week on his studies. He changed his major from communications to U.S. history after an academic adviser suggested it would be the easiest fit for his basketball schedule.

"There were classes I took that were not easy classes but they fit my basketball schedule so I could make it to basketball practice," O'Bannon said.

The testimony came as a trial that could upend the way college sports are regulated opened five years after the suit was filed. O'Bannon and 19 other plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken for an injunction that would allow athletes to sell the rights to their own images in television broadcasts and rebroadcasts.

If successful, the plaintiffs in the class-action case -- who are not asking for individual damages -- could pave the way for a system that uses some of the huge money flowing into television contracts to pay athletes for their play once they are done with their college careers.

As the trial began, the NCAA announced it had reached a $20 million settlement in a related case involving video games that used the likenesses and images of players without getting their permission. NCAA attorney Donald Remy acknowledged that the settlement in a suit brought by former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller will result in some current players getting money but said it doesn't change the NCAA's strong belief that the collegiate athletic model is lawful.

"Consistent with the terms of a court-approved settlement, the NCAA will allow a blanket eligibility waiver for any currently enrolled student-athletes who receive funds connected with the settlement," Remy said. "In no event do we consider this settlement pay for athletics performance."

O'Bannon, who joined the lawsuit that carries his name after seeing his image used in a NCAA-branded video game, said he signed a letter of intent that he never read as a 17-year-old eager to display his skills at UCLA. He ended up spending five years at the school but was seven courses short of graduating when he was drafted into the NBA.

He spent two years in the NBA and another seven playing professionally in Europe. He now lives in a Las Vegas suburb, where he makes his living selling cars.

O'Bannon acknowledged getting benefits from his time at UCLA, including a free education and room and board. He also met his wife at school and enjoyed his relationship with coach Jim Harrick and the late John Wooden.

"Everyone who came in contact with [Wooden] loved him," O'Bannon said. "I was envious personally that I was born a little bit too late. I wished I could have played for him; he's that kind of man."

Meeting with reporters afterward, O'Bannon said he erred in his testimony when he said that kids appearing in television broadcasts of the Little League World Series deserve a cut of the associated media revenues.

"I probably should have thought a little bit before saying that," he said. "Little Leaguers getting paid? Probably not."

In cross-examination by NCAA lawyer Glenn Pomerantz, O'Bannon was pressed on his belief -- central to the case brought by the plaintiffs -- that college athletes should be able to get paid for the use of their images in live broadcasts of games.

Pomerantz asked if that should be the case as well with high school athletes who appear in nationally televised games.

"If they are generating revenue for their school, I believe they should be compensated," O'Bannon responded.

Pomerantz then asked about the Little League World Series, which provides nearly a month's worth of popular television programming each August for ESPN.

O'Bannon, sticking with his theory, said yes.

O'Bannon hardly seemed resolute in his response. But the moment was a win for the NCAA, which has held itself up as the guardian of amateurism in the U.S., a term with an evolving definition but one that at its core involves significant restraints on the ability of athletes -- at whatever level -- to share in the revenues they help generate.

Any potential impacts on high school and youth sports are not central to the legal issues in the trial, which is limited to questions about college sports. Further, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken has been dubious about amateurism in general, telling the NCAA in a pretrial hearing that the word would not be "useful" in winning its arguments before her.

Still, the implied, potential impacts to entertainment-based sports activity at lower levels could provide another layer of protection for the NCAA as it tries to win in any appeal, as well as in the court of public opinion. So far, the issue has only been framed as a college sports issue.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Remy, the NCAA's chief lawyer, stoked the notion that the ripple effects of this case could extend down to the preteen level. Asked if he believed Little Leagues could lead to payments for media revenues if the NCAA loses, he said: "That's a possibility. That would be the logical extension of the legal argument."

Remy noted that several organizations outside of the NCAA and its member schools have filed "friend of the court" briefs in support of the NCAA. Little League International is not one of them, he said. However, he noted, "members of the broadcast industry have spoken out about their concerns."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN's Tom Farrey was used in this report.

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