Former college basketball standout Ed O'Bannon and his lawyers sought on Thursday to dramatically expand his lawsuit challenging the NCAA's ban on compensating athletes in a move that could expose the organization and its member schools to billions of dollars in damages.
O'Bannon and his lawyers asked a federal court judge to turn their antitrust lawsuit into a class action, representing thousands of former and current college athletes. The lawsuit demands that the NCAA find a way to cut players in on the billions of dollars earned by college sports from live broadcasts, memorabilia sales, video games and in other areas.
U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken didn't rule on either the merits of O'Bannon's case or his demands to turn the case into a class action. It could take weeks, even months, before Wilken rules.
Instead, she ordered O'Bannon's lawyers to revise the lawsuit to fix some legal technicalities, including explicating adding current players to the lawsuit. Lawyer Michael Hausfeld said he will file a new lawsuit that includes current players, but will seek to keep their names confidential.
"They are afraid of retaliation," Hausfeld told the court.
NCAA lawyer Greg Curtner is against certifying the lawsuit as a class action, arguing that the claims of thousands of collegiate athletes are too different to be treated the same. For instance, certain athletes bring in more revenue than others and have different legal claims at stake.
The NCAA argues that many of the athletes receive scholarships in exchange for playing sports and to pay student athletes would ruin amateur athletics. To pay athletes more than that would ruin collegiate sports, the NCAA argues.
The debate over compensating college players is almost as old as the NCAA, founded in 1906. Amateurs have been expected to compete for free and the love of sport — or at least the cost of a scholarship and the pursuit of an education.
Contesting the lawsuits
The NCAA is steadfast in its position that student-athletes are prohibited from receiving payment for participating in sports. It also says it has done nothing wrong in marketing itself for the benefit of its member schools and will continue to vigorously contest the lawsuits.
But the NCAA's revenues have skyrocketed in recent years — it recently signed a $10.8 billion US, 14-year television deal for basketball — and so have the demands of athletes to share in the money.
"I'm doing this for change," O'Bannon said outside court.
The star of the NCAA 1995 basketball champion UCLA Bruins travelled from his Las Vegas home to attend the hearing Thursday.
He said he first became aware that others were profiting from his image in 1995, when he visited a friend's house and was shown an avatar resembling O'Bannon playing for the 1995 Bruins in the game. Two years later, he filed a lawsuit that focused attention from lawmakers, college administrators and others on just how much money the NCAA and its member schools earn each year.
The schools argue that money-making sports like football and baseball help support sports such as volleyball and gymnastics with smaller fan bases.
That may be, O'Bannon said, but he still thinks student athletes who help generate the revenues are entitled to a cut.
"I believe the kids coming through the system can do better than I did," he said. "I never thought this lawsuit would get this big, but now that it has, I hope it forces big changes."