Ed O'Bannon: Ruling is tip of iceberg

ByTom Farrey ESPN logo
Sunday, August 10, 2014

In his first extensive interview since a federal judge ruled that college athletes can share in the billions of dollars generated from broadcast and other media contracts, Ed O'Bannon said that he is satisfied with the gains made by athletes, even with the NCAA receiving the ability to cap compensation at $5,000 per year above the value of a full college scholarship.

The former UCLA star, whose name adorns the historic lawsuit, told ESPN and ABC News that the spending controls imposed by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken on Friday could evolve as the leaders of college sports, and those challenging the existing rules, reshape the industry in the coming months and years.

"What we did is just a small amount of change," O'Bannon said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think that a lot of change is going to happen. This is just the beginning."

But it was a significant start, nothing less than a rejection of the NCAA's amateurism model. The strongly worded decision by Wilken -- establishing that players have group rights in products that exploit their names, images and likenesses (NILs) -- is expected to bolster other efforts to give players more money and power within the college sports structure.

O'Bannon said he has no agenda other than to continue to provoke "change" that benefits athletes, both through educational and commercial benefits.Wilken's ruling promoted a system that effectively compels schools who want to compete at the highest level of college football and men's basketball to offer cost-of-attendance scholarships, plus as much as $25,000 that would be drawn from NIL-related revenues but would be paid out after an athlete graduates or completes his NCAA eligibility.

"My biggest thing has been change," O'Bannon said. "These rules have been in place for a hundred years and there has been no change. Times have changed, the economy has changed, the players themselves have changed, the salaries of the coaches have changed. Everything has changed except for how a player is compensated. And whether (they're paid) while they're in school, or whether it's once their eligibility is up, that part of the game has to change."

Michael Hausfeld, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said no decision has been made on whether to appeal the decision. But he and co-counsel Bill Isaacson expressed pleasure with the ruling, which beyond allowing them to recover their group's considerable fees from the five-year legal fight -- a total that could surpass $20 million -- could funnel significant funds to future players starting in 2016.

A $5,000 annual contribution per player pales compared to the billions of dollars in new revenue from television contracts flowing into NCAA and major conference coffers in the coming years. But if all Football Bowl Subdivision and Division I men's basketball programs participate, the aggregate contribution by schools would be north of $300 million over four years, Isaacson said. With the additional costs of covering the difference between the current value of an athletic scholarship and a cost-of-attendance scholarship, the contribution grows to about $500 million.

Hausfeld noted that the costs would grow further if schools feel compelled to offer the same benefits to female and non-revenue athletes, which athletic departments would need to do, according to some college sports leaders arguing against the O'Bannon claim.

Next up in the legal pipeline is a separate lawsuit challenging the NCAA's policy of capping compensation at any level. Jeffrey Kessler, lead counsel on that lawsuit, declined comment Saturday on Wilken's ruling. Beyond that, the National Labor Relations Board will review an appeal by Northwestern University, supported by the NCAA, of a regional director's decision that football players there are employees and have the right to unionize.

Hausfeld said the one decision he has made so far on how to proceed with the O'Bannon ruling is that he will submit the decision to the NLRB for its consideration.

"Many of the objections [the NCAA and Northwestern] are raising before the board are the same objections they put before Judge Wilken" and had rejected, he said.

"They should have a higher burden now before the board to show that players are not employees."

O'Bannon said he learned of the judge's decision at the Las Vegas car dealership where he works. He described a mix of emotions, mostly relief, when a colleague told him that the players won. He said it's been a long five years, and felt it was his responsibility and the responsibility of the team of lawyers and economists backing the lawsuit to deliver results for other athletes

He received no money from Wilken's ruling, which was limited to the legality of the NCAA's rules under antitrust law and whether it could continue to restrain schools from providing athletes with revenue from their NILs. He and the other named plaintiffs dropped their request for individual damages shortly before the June trial, after the judge denied group damages.

"This has never been about me," O'Bannon said. "This has always been about the rights of college athletes -- present, past and future. I've always wanted to be in a position to help others when we took this case.

"It was about righting a wrong."

He expressed hope that ultimately, the lawsuit will promote both education and a better product for fans.

Allowing players to receive compensation, he said, relieves pressure to leave after one year of college in the case of basketball stars, and three years in the case of football.

"I don't think that players will be in a hurry to leave [anymore] and test their professional status," he said. "Hopefully, they will stay in school a little bit longer."

O'Bannon was recruited into the case by Sonny Vaccaro, the former summer basketball pioneer who had been rejected by a number of former athletes in his quest to find a plaintiff for Hausfeld in 2009. O'Bannon, who led UCLA to the NCAA men's basketball championship in 1995, had just seen his likeness in a video game days before, and it didn't sit right with him that he was neither compensated nor asked for permission for its use.

He said he understands why other ex-athletes were reluctant to step forward. He cited the relationships that they have with schools and the dreams some of them have to be college coaches -- the professional hazards of challenging college sports' governing body.

"It's an uphill battle," he said. "You have the potential to have your name dragged through the mud, your family's name dragged through the mud. I don't want to say it takes a lot of courage to do this but other players had an opportunity to do it and no one wanted to do. I went through with it because when I saw my likeness, it struck a nerve."

Once the lawsuit was filed, plenty of friends and athletes questioned his judgment, he said.

"I got a lot of people looking at me sideways like, 'Hey man, what are you doing? I'm not sure you can win this, in fact I know you aren't going to win this,' " he said. "You got to be pretty crazy to do something like this. [But] those calls and those looks, that fueled the fire even more. I knew I had to do it."

Now, his voice mail is filled with expressions of gratitude, from former teammates and others.

He understands some will liken him to Curt Flood, who helped bring free agency to baseball by challenging clubs' control over players and their compensation. He says that was never his goal, and his payoff is the "satisfaction" he gets from knowing that his family is proud of him.

"That's what I get out of it," he said. "Whether an athlete, present or future, knows me or not or, hell, even what I did for them, whether they recognize that or not, makes absolutely no difference to me. The game has changed and I'm very proud of that."

Related Video