How Did We Get Here? A Primer on the Ed O’Bannon Case

June 09, 2014

The long-awaited trial of a lawsuit brought by Ed O’Bannon against the National Collegiate Athletic Association is scheduled to begin on Monday in federal court in California. Below are some of the key questions in the case.

Who is Ed O’Bannon?

Mr. O’Bannon was a standout basketball player at the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1990s. Years after leaving the university, he recognized his image and likeness in an Electronic Arts video game for which he had not been compensated. He filed a lawsuit against Electronic Arts, the Collegiate Licensing Company, and the NCAA, alleging that the association had violated federal antitrust laws by prohibiting players from profiting off of their images after they leave college.

How has the case changed?

Many current and former athletes have joined Mr. O’Bannon in the class-action suit, in which the NCAA is now the sole defendant. The players are no longer seeking damages. But they have asked a judge to force the NCAA to change its rules.

So what’s at stake now?

The way the NCAA does business. What started as a case about video games has morphed into a challenge of the association’s most fundamental principles: whether athletes should receive compensation beyond the value of their scholarships.

Is this about money?

The NCAA says athletes have agreed to play sports in exchange for a scholarship. The players believe they are entitled to a share of the vast licensing revenue the NCAA brings in from television broadcasts and other commercial products.

Could the case be settled outside of court?

That happened with Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company, which recently finalized a $40-million settlement with players. Lawyers for Mr. O’Bannon say they are open to the possibility of settling, but so far the association has shown no interest.

What happens if the players win?

A victory for the players would not change their status as students, nor would it guarantee them wages (a separate challenge involves a push for player unionization). But if the plaintiffs prevail, it is possible that current football players in the NCAA’s Bowl Subdivision and Division I men’s basketball players would be allowed to sign endorsement deals and enter into group licensing arrangements without losing their NCAA eligibility.

How strong is the NCAA’s case?

The courts have historically given sports leagues wide latitude to operate in ways that might otherwise violate antitrust laws. But the judge in the case has made several rulings favorable to the plaintiffs. The NCAA has promised to fight the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary. And some legal experts say the association’s chances would improve on appeal.