The Next Step Of The Ed O’Bannon NCAA Trial Is Upon UsPosted by Chris Johnson on June 20th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The anatomic framework of college sports as we know it hangs in the balance Thursday, June 20, in the much-anticipated class-action hearing of the landmark Ed O’Bannon trial. Sports trials rarely come this big, or this potentially transformative, and by the time we’re all through here – we’ve still got a long ways to go, mind you – amateur athletics could bear zero resemblance, or very little, to the way it operates today. There is a lot on the line. Thursday’s courtroom meeting, wherein plaintiffs arguing on O’Bannon’s behalf will attempt to have their suit class-action certified by Judge Claudia Wilken, probably won’t render a conclusive verdict. The back-and-forth arguments will merely serve as pieces of evidence in the larger evolution of the case, and if one side’s platform is strong enough at Thursday’s gathering, Wilken could issue a ruling. But she probably won’t, which means we still have time to discuss the pawns involved, what’s at stake, the philosophical and legal implications at hand, and the likelihood college athletics could be completely made over sometime within the next few years.
Before we get started, I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw out one probably unpopular but incredibly important fact: The NCAA isn’t about to vanish into thin air. Mark Emmert’s opaquely tangled amazon of rules and bylaws is here to stay for at least a couple more years. College sports needs a governing body, and the NCAA, for all its flaws, has fulfilled that basic function, with different degrees of success, throughout its existence. More important is whether the NCAA can continue to exist in the same way it always has. O’Bannon and his partners say nay. They believe athletes deserve a slice of the broadcast rights money shared between the NCAA and its members – the same money that pushed the turnstiles of conference realignment, blew the old Big East to smithereens and forced us all to reconsider the concept of athletic conferences in college sports. O’Bannon sees school and conference administrators and the NCAA getting fat off multi-million dollar TV contracts, the athletes whose competitions make those agreements possible in the first place receiving no financial compensation beyond room and board, the archaic notion of amateurism and its dubious historical origins – and he wants something to change. A lot of things, actually.
A successful class-certification for both former and current players would be the biggest first step. If Wilken does make that ruling, the NCAA could be forced to either, a) agree to a massively punitive financial settlement that could bankrupt the organization out of operation; or b) go to court and test its luck against a swath of powerful attorneys and political proponents. The only legalistic endpoint for a dispute of this magnitude is the Supreme Court, which would allow the NCAA to buy time with countless appeals and procedural checkpoints – maybe filibuster long enough to wiggle its way out through an appeal of some sort – but could likewise tear down the NCAA’s sacrosanct amateurism concept and all its peripheral influences. Wilken can also strike down the motion for class-certification, which could lead to a ream of minor lawsuits from various plaintiffs, but nothing serious enough to turn the entire organization on its head, or even marginally threaten the NCAA’s livelihood. Last, Wilken could rule somewhere in the middle, giving class certification status for the former players only. That could force the NCAA into a pretty hefty settlement, potentially even more legal complications in the run-up, but only the first option – where Wilken certifies the class for both former and current players – will truly force Emmert and co. to shudder as he contemplates the potential unhinging of college sports’ long-entrenched ruling system.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page here, it’s important you go into Thursday’s hearing without grand expectations of irrevocable structural change, or a ceremonial kabooming of Emmert’s office in Indianapolis. Thursday is just another step in the process. An important one, but not by any means the final one. Instead of counting down the final days of NCAA life, hurriedly proclaiming the end of an frustratingly obsolete governing body, I heartily recommend you read up on the issues (Michael McCann’s breakdown over at Sports Illustrated gets at the heart of the nittiest and grittiest of all your legalese misconceptions), gather an informed opinion and ruminate on the transformation that, with the help of a class ruling Thursday, could come somewhere down the line.