Commentary: O’Bannon Case a Winning Hand for Athletes From the Start

Federal judge’s decision threatens seismic changes to the college sports landscape.

Posted: 08/13/2014 12:05 PM EDT
Ed O'Bannon

The NCAA missed its guess if the organization thought it could drag flimsy logic into a U.S. courtroom and expect to win with it forever.

Forever isn’t as long as it used to be, a fact NCAA officials discovered last week when they lost the Ed O’Bannon suit. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled the organization had a peculiar view of amateurism and called the NCAA’s model of it a “blatant violation” of antitrust laws.

Now, Wilken’s decision wasn’t quite a first-round knockout for O’Bannon’s side. NCAA lawyers are still trying to sift through its legalese and figure out exactly what that ruling means. In fact, they sought clarification from Wilken herself, which means the courtroom gymnastics in this five-year-old case will continue awhile longer.

What more do these hired mouthpieces need to hear, though?

They are representing clients that had strayed so far from reality that the only way to rein them in was through the court. The NCAA, facing its most serious challenge ever, could have resolved this case long ago, but it proved unbending in the face of a losing position.

Sometimes the chessboard favors the weaker opponent, and that was the case as O’Bannon, a former college hoops star at UCLA, saw the deep-pocketed NCAA and its rich partner EA Sports use his image in video games and on TV broadcasts and not pay him a cent for it.

The Ed O’Bannon case ran deeper than just EA Sports, however. The case went to the soul of naked exploitation. Everybody benefited from O’Bannon’s work but O’Bannon.

Yet what did O’Bannon and the other plaintiffs win? They dropped their demand for compensation to, as several legal experts put it, narrow the scope of Wilken’s ruling. What is left is a muddle that isn’t clear to anybody – not yet. 

“All we're really left with are endless questions and the specter of more lawsuits,” said Ann Killion, a writer for SFGate.com. “Plus, the reality that the imbalance in collegiate sports will become greater. The rich will get richer.”

No doubt, more lawsuits are to come, because one thing we’ve learned about the NCAA is that hardheaded fools run the organization. They aren’t going to give in without pouring more dollars into a legal fight – a legal fight that, surely, has millions at risk for the governing body of college sports.

NCAA president Mark Emmert, hardly a sports visionary, declared he would appeal the 99-page ruling as soon as it was announced.

"No one on our legal team or the college conferences' legal teams think this is a violation of antitrust laws, and we need to get that settled in the courts," Emmert said.

So the legal fight goes on a bit longer. We’ll see more athletes exploited; we’ll see more money go to college programs and none to the O’Bannons of sports. We’ll see that because the masters of the game will not free their slaves so easily.

But freedom will come. It will come because it is just, and even in the worst of circumstances, right has a way of trumping wrong. And not many instances of wrong prove as glaring as the system of involuntary servitude that the NCAA demanded its student/athletes agree to.

Slavery of any kind has long been proved wrong, and despite the money in its coffers, the NCAA cannot defend such a position any more than slave owners elsewhere in world history ever could.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Isaac Brekken, File/AP Photo)

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