Updated 12:17 p.m.: The battle to give top football and basketball players a cut of the billions of dollars flowing into college athletics began in earnest Monday with former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon taking the stand in federal court to describe how he spent long hours working on his game and as few as possible on his grades.
The lead plaintiff in a landmark antitrust suit against the NCAA said his goal at UCLA wasn't to get a degree, but to get two years of college experience before being drafted into the NBA.
"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," O'Bannon said. "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."
O'Bannon portrayed himself as a dedicated athlete who would stay after games to work on his shot if he played poorly, but an indifferent student at best. His job at UCLA, he said, was to play basketball and took up so much time that just making it to class a few hours a day was difficult.
O'Bannon, who led UCLA to a national championship in 1995, said he spent 40 to 45 hours a week either preparing for games or playing them, and only about 12 hours a week on his studies. He changed his major from communications to U.S. history after an academic adviser suggested it would be the easiest fit for his basketball schedule.
"There were classes I took that were not easy classes but they fit my basketball schedule so I could make it to basketball practice," O'Bannon said.
The testimony came as a trial that could upend the way college sports are regulated opened, five years after the suit was filed. O'Bannon and 19 other plaintiffs are asking U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken for an injunction that would allow athletes to sell the rights to their own images in television broadcasts and rebroadcasts.
If successful, the plaintiffs in the class-action case — who are not asking for individual damages — could pave the way for a system that uses some of the huge money flowing into television contracts to pay athletes for their play once they are done with their college careers.
As the trial began, the NCAA announced it had reached a $20 million settlement in a related case involving videogames that used the likeness and images of players without getting their permission. NCAA attorney Donald Remy acknowledged that the settlement in a suit brought by former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller will result in some current players getting money but doesn't change the NCAA's strong belief that the collegiate athletic model is lawful.
"Consistent with the terms of a court-approved settlement, the NCAA will allow a blanket eligibility waiver for any currently enrolled student-athletes who receive funds connected with the settlement," Remy said. "In no event do we consider this settlement pay for athletics performance."
O'Bannon, who joined the lawsuit that carries his name after seeing his image used in a NCAA-branded videogame, said he signed a letter of intent that he never read as a 17-year-old eager to display his skills at UCLA. He ended up spending five years at the school, but was seven courses short of graduating when he was drafted into the NBA.
He spent two years in the NBA and another seven playing professionally in Europe. He now lives in a Las Vegas suburb, where he makes his living selling cars.
O'Bannon acknowledged getting benefits from his time at UCLA, including a free education and room and board. He also met his wife at school, and enjoyed his relationship with coach Jim Harrick and the late John Wooden.
"Everyone who came in contact with (Wooden) loved him," O'Bannon said. "I was envious personally that I was born a little bit too late. I wished I could have played for him, he's that kind of man."
But under cross examination, O'Bannon said he believed athletes should share in some of the money that schools are making off their efforts on the court and field.
"If they are generating revenue for their school, I believe they should be compensated at some point," he said.
FAQ: NCAA trial that could reshape college athletics begins
Some believe it could upend the way college sports operate. Others say Ed O'Bannon's legal crusade against the NCAA already has.
Five years after the former UCLA star filed his antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, it goes to trial Monday in a California courtroom. The stakes are high in the biggest challenge yet to the NCAA's authority to operate college sports at a time when big money makes so-called "amateur" sports look an awful lot like the pros.
Here's a look at the issues surrounding the case:
Q: What is this trial about?
A: The NCAA is being sued by O'Bannon and others over the use of their images in broadcasts and video games without compensation. They will argue at trial that the NCAA has acted as a cartel in violation of federal antitrust laws by conspiring to keep players from making money while at the same time pocketing billions of dollars in big television contracts. The NCAA contends that rules on "amateurism" are necessary to retain competitive balance and that a successful lawsuit could create a free-for-all that will seriously damage college athletics.
Q: What are the plaintiffs asking for?
A: In the short term, not much. The 20 named plaintiffs dropped their demands for money in damages a few weeks before the trial in a strategic move to narrow the scope of the case. But they are asking for the judge to rule in their favor and issue an injunction that would prohibit the NCAA from enforcing rules against paying players for the use of their images in broadcasts. Lawyers for the plaintiffs will also argue they deserve reimbursement for legal fees that they said exceeded $30 million even before the trial. "Just to get to trial alone is huge," said Jon King, an attorney handling several related cases. "To obtain an injunction will be revolutionary."
Q: Why would a win be so important?
A: This is the first time a challenge to the way the NCAA operates has gotten this far. It is part of a broader effort to change the way major college sports are operated that includes several other lawsuits challenging various NCAA regulations and a unionization effort that won a vote for football players at Northwestern earlier this year. Plaintiffs and others claim that there is no real amateurism in a college sports industry where coaches make millions, administrators are well paid and everyone profits except the athletes providing the labor. "O'Bannon represents a watershed moment for the NCAA," said Northeastern University School of Law professor Roger Abrams, an expert in sports and antitrust law. "When combined with the Northwestern football team unionization effort, the case raises the question whether the NCAA must totally re-conceptualize its approach to regulating college athletics."
Q: What will we find out during trial?
A: There will be a lot of testimony about the huge amounts of money coming into college sports, literally billions of dollars for the conferences and the NCAA from television rights deals. At least two conferences — The Big 12 and Conference USA — made last-minute challenges in court to keep their television deals secret, arguing they would be at a competitive disadvantage if other conferences and schools knew exactly what the terms of those deals are. There will also be testimony on the NCAA side about the many benefits athletes get while in college, including tuition, room and board, and tutors to help them get degrees.
Q: Will other athletes, say swimmers or golfers, get something from this?
A: No, the class-action suit is limited to football players and Division I basketball players. Those two sports are the biggest revenue generators for colleges.
Q: Why haven't they settled?
A: The NCAA says it can't budge on the fundamental question of paying players, because doing so would upend the model ofcollege sports. The organization also believes many of the lawsuits are lawyer-driven and says athletes are treated better than ever and happier than ever. The plaintiffs did reach a separate settlement with videogame maker EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Co. for $40 million that will allow some payments to former players. The NCAA dismissed that by saying "the real benefactors of this settlement are the lawyers, who could pocket more than $15 million."
Q: Will this lead to pay-for-play in college sports?
A: Not right away, though the pressure brought by unionization attempts and lawsuits already has led to proposals for the five biggest college conferences to increase scholarship money and change other rules to benefit athletes. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the whole college sports system doesn't need to be blown up, but there are remedies that will help athletesprosper while at the same time keeping a structure to control college athletics. They're suggesting the establishment of a trust funded by the NCAA and its schools that would take money for the use of player images and dole it out to individual players — but only after they're done with school. "Notwithstanding the NCAA's conjecture that the sky will fall, an unfettered market will not bring college athletics to a halt," attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote in a trial brief.