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Thursday, May 27, 2010
O'Bannon NCAA lawsuit not going away

By Eamonn Brennan

It's been a while since we checked in on Ed O'Bannon's potentially game-changing lawsuit against the NCAA. But if you recall, the former UCLA great is suing over NCAA royalties made on his likeness after his playing days, specifically those in highlight reels on NCAA tournament commercials or in video games like EA Sports' NCAA March Madness series, which no longer exists and which was never fun in the first place. (Frankly, I should sue EA Sports for preying on my college hoops fandom by making me buy a video game that was always, at best, a warmed-over version of NBA Live. That's the real tragedy here. But I digress.)

The reason O'Bannon's lawsuit is important is that it marks one of the first times the NCAA stands to be seriously challenged on the legality of its practices with former player royalties. Even more interesting is the potential legal consequences waiting down the line. If O'Bannon wins, does that open the door for current NCAA players to sue for their piece of the $4 billion NCAA pie?

There's a long way to go before anything that drastic happens, but there is more news from the O'Bannon suit front. O'Bannon has combined his suit with former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller's, and with a growing list of former NCAA student-athletes behind them, the two will attempt to have a San Francisco court certify the suit as a class action. Some of the relevant implications, courtesy of FanHouse:
It's a massive decision: Because of the potential for a gargantuan payout in a class-action suit, the NCAA is not expected to fight if the case is certified, and would instead pursue a settlement, which would still likely be a considerable amount. On the flip-side, if the suit is not certified, it's unlikely that each of the athletes would pursue their cases individually. The case is now before Judge Vaughn Walker, the chief jurist for the San Francisco-Oakland Federal Court system, who's no stranger to high-profile litigation. [...] If he decides to certify the O'Bannon/Keller case as a class action, "the stakes for the NCAA increase exponentially," says John King, a partner at Washington, DC-based Hausfeld LLP, which is one of two firms representing the players.

In other words, things are getting serious. The court refused the NCAA's motion to deny the case in February, and now, if this whole class action business goes through, the NCAA could be forced to settle out of court. One imagines them having a pretty tough time doing so. The lawyers involved on O'Bannon's side seem out for more than just a big payday here. They are representing the cause long championed by shoe-camp guru Sonny Vaccaro, and the best way to do that is to make sure the details of the NCAA's finances are heard in a very public forum, i.e. a court of law.

Whatever happens, it will be worth watching. The NCAA, as we know it, isn't going away anytime soon. But it isn't destined to stay like this forever. If things do change, at least for former athletes, it will be O'Bannon's lawsuit that triggered it.