Judge rules against NCAA

In a landmark decision, a federal judge ruled Friday that the NCAA is in violation of the nation’s antitrust laws by restricting the compensation that major college football and men’s basketball student-athletes can receive for use of their names, images and likenesses.

U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken, in a 99-page decision that followed a contentious three-week trial in June, sided with a group of plaintiffs, led by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who sued the NCAA, claiming it violated antitrust laws by conspiring with the schools and conferences to block the athletes from getting a share of the revenues generated from the use of their images in broadcasts and video games.

“The Court finds that the challenged NCAA rules unreasonably restrain trade in the market for certain educational and athletic opportunities offered by NCAA Division I schools,” Wilken wrote.

Wilken rejected the NCAA’s arguments in defense of its economic model, saying the “justifications that the NCAA offers do not justify this restraint and could be achieved through less restrictive means” while preserving college sports competition.

In a partial victory for the NCAA, though, Wilken said it could set a cap on the money paid to athletes for use of their name and images, as long as it allows at least $5,000 a year for big school football and basketball players.

“We disagree with the Court’s decision that NCAA rules violate antitrust laws,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. “We note that the Court’s decision sets limits on compensation, but are reviewing the full decision and will provide further comment later. As evidenced by yesterday’s Board of Directors action, the NCAA is committed to fully supporting student-athletes.”

Wilken also said she will enter a permanent injunction prohibiting “certain overly restrictive restraints.”

The case could be appealed.

In the lawsuit, O’Bannon and 19 others challenged the NCAA’s regulation of college athletics on antitrust grounds.

Wilken was not asked to rule on the fairness of a system that pays almost everyone but the athletes themselves. Instead, the case was centered on federal antitrust law and whether the prohibition against paying players promotes the game of college football and does not restrain competition in the marketplace.

The plaintiffs gave up their right to damages in a pretrial move that meant the case would be heard only by the judge and not a jury. But even without monetary damages for former players the case was a battle over hundreds of millions of dollars in television contracts that attorneys for the plaintiffs said should be shared with the athletes themselves.

In a scathing post trial brief, they argued that the NCAA basically staked its defense on a 1984 Supreme Court decision that said the fundamental rule of amateurism was at the core of the NCAA’s regulation of college athletics and that the organization could have suggested other remedies to help athletes to justify its control of the college sports marketplace.

“In some places, it is as if our three-week trial did not occur,” plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote.

Attorneys for the NCAA, though, said moving away from the concept of amateurism would drive spectators away from college sports and would upset the competitive balance among schools and conferences. They said some of the relief sought by the plaintiffs would allow for third parties to play players and that universities would lose control of their programs.

Several players testified during the trial that they viewed playing sports as their main occupation in college, saying the many hours they had to devote to the sport made it difficult — if not impossible — to function like regular students.

O’Bannon portrayed himself as a dedicated athlete who would stay after games to work on his shot if needed, but not much of a student. He said his job at UCLA was to play basketball and took up so much time that just making it to class was difficult.

“I was an athlete masquerading as a student,” said O’Bannon, star of the 1995 UCLA team that won the national title. “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.”

But witnesses called by the NCAA during the trial spoke of the education provided athletes as payment for their services and said the college model has functioned well for more than a century. They contended that paying players would make college sports less popular and could force schools to cut other programs funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars taken in by big time athletics.

The head of the Big Ten painted a dire picture of what college sports would look like in his testimony, saying his conference would likely cease to exist and the Rose Bowl would probably not be played.

Jim Delany said the idea of paying players goes against the entire college experience and he couldn’t see league members agreeing to it. If some did, he said, they likely would be kicked out of the conference because the move would create an imbalance among schools that could not be resolved.

“There wouldn’t be a Rose Bowl if either they or we were operating in a very different wavelength in terms of paying players,” Delany said

Written by Catfish Hughes

Catfish Hughes

Frank “Catfish” Hughes has been called, “Bob Knight’s Baby with Hip Hop that covers sports.” and “the future of sports writing!” He is an official member of the NSSA & USBWA. Catfish covers the Los Angeles Angeles as the official East Coast Voice of the Lakers, and owns the NBA media outlet, WickedJumpShot.com and was the host of Thru the Wire Sports Talk Radio which aired on both ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio. Catfish is the head editor and chief here at the Boxing Globe. @CatfishHughes on twitter.