It takes some doing to keep your name in the news some 14 years after winning a national title and some 12 years after ‘retiring’ from the NBA, but former NPOY and UCLA national champion Ed O’Bannon is doing his best this summer. First came the Washington Post article in June that showed how, instead of cashing mega-checks like his contemporaries KG, Stack and Sheed from the 1995 draft, Eddie O. is now selling cars in the hot Vegas desert; that was followed by media exposure of the Lil Wayne song “Cannon,” where the lyric “listen close I got duct tape and rope, I’ll leave you missin’ like the (expletive) O’Bannons” was roundly ridiculed in the blogosphere. Perhaps striking while the iron is hot, O’Bannon today sued the NCAA and its brand manager, Collegiate Licensing Company, in a federal class action suit claiming that the two entities illegally use player likenesses and images to reap millions of dollars in profit while former players see nothing in return. Pete Thamel from the NYT writes:
A lawsuit that [O’Bannon’s] lawyers filed on Tuesday could change that answer and affect other issues surrounding the use of the likenesses and images of former college football and basketball players. The lawsuit is for an undisclosed amount of money, but will bring into greater focus the N.C.A.A.’s $4 billion licensing industry. The lawsuit says that former athletes should be compensated by the N.C.A.A. for the use of their images and likenesses in such things as television advertisements, video games and apparel.
According to O’Bannon, he got the idea for this suit when a co-worker saw a UCLA game of his on ESPN Classic the night before. When the colleague asked whether he received residuals for the showing of that game, he said no. Whether or not this half-baked vignette is truly the reason behind the suit (it’s not), the general feeling is that this could be a major, major problem for the NCAA. The fundamental question that a court will have to decide comes down to whether the existing NCAA policy that requires its student-athletes to sign away their rights to their likenesses in exchange as a condition for playing collegiate sports is legal. O’Bannon’s argument is that such a policy is exploitative at its core, and Michael McCann from Sports Law Blog believes there could be merit to his argument.
The stakes of O’Bannon v. NCAA are enormous. If O’Bannon and former student-athletes prevail or receive a favorable settlement, the NCAA, along with its member conferences and schools, could be required to pay tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in damages — particularly since damages are trebled under federal antitrust law.
Frankly, it’s about effin’ time. As Dan Wetzel poignantly notes in his article breaking the story today, the players are painted into a (legally unrepresented) corner at 17 or 18 years old when all they’re really worried about is getting their eligibility to play college sports. We understand why the NCAA doesn’t want its current players profiting off of their likenesses while an amateur, but why does the NCAA retain 100% of those rights for the rest of those players’ lives? Why does Texas Western profit off of 1966 jerseys of #14 Bobby Joe Hill, but not the player (or the estate in Hill’s case) some 40+ years later? Same thing with Jerry Rice’s MVSU #88 jersey? Or, as O’Bannon stated in his complaint, why doesn’t he see a dime for an EA Sports video game licensed by the NCAA that clearly shows his silky smooth left-handed collegiate “self” running around making shots and ripping down rebounds as a 1995 UCLA Bruin? It’s absolutely ludicrous, and we’d really like to see the NCAA take it on the chin this time around.
Epilogue: guess who is making this happen as an ‘unpaid consultant’… none other than the top NCAA gadfly himself, Sonny Vaccaro. Call him the Highlander Folk School and Ed O’Bannon the Rosa Parks of NCAA reform…