In a landmark decision, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and 19 others in a lawsuit that challenged the NCAA's regulation of college athletics on antitrust grounds. She issued an injunction prohibiting the NCAA from enforcing its rules on money given to athletes when it comes to their names, images and likenesses.
In a partial victory for the NCAA, though, Wilken said the body that governs college athletics could set a cap on the money paid to athletes, as long as it allows at least $5,000 per athlete per year of competition for players at big football and basketball schools.
"The NCAA's witnesses stated that their concerns about student-athlete compensation would be minimized or negated if compensation was capped at a few thousand dollars per year," Wilken wrote.
The NCAA said in a statement it disagreed with the decision, but was still reviewing it.
But Sonny Vaccaro, the former athletic shoe representative who recruited O'Bannon to launch the suit, said it was a huge win for college athletes yet to come.
"The kids who are going to benefit from this are kids who don't even know what we did today," Vaccaro said. "It may only be $5,000 but it's $5,000 more than they get now. The future generation will be the benefactor of all this. There are now new ground rules in college sports."
The ruling comes after a five-year battle by O'Bannon and others on behalf of college athletes to receive a share of the billions of dollars generated by college athletics by huge television contracts. O'Bannon, who was MVP of the 1995 UCLA national championship basketball team, said he signed on as lead plaintiff after seeing his image in a video game authorized by the NCAA that he was not paid for.
Any payments to athletes would not be immediate. The ruling said regulations on pay will not take effect until the start of the next FBS football and Division I basketball recruiting cycle. Wilken said they will not affect any prospective recruits before July 1, 2016. The NCAA could also appeal.
Lawyers for O'Bannon and the others had sought to have millions of dollars put in trust funds for the athletes, but Wilken included a cap on payments. Former athletes will not be paid, because they gave up their right to damages in a pre-trial move so the case would be heard by a judge, not a jury.
Wilken was not asked to rule on the fairness of a system that pays almost everyone but the athletes themselves. Instead, the case was centered on federal antitrust law and whether the prohibition against paying players promotes the game of college football and does not restrain competition in the marketplace.
During a three-week trial in June, plaintiffs argued that athletes had a right to money generated by their skills and images.
Attorneys for the NCAA, though, said moving away from the concept of amateurism where players participated for the love of the game would drive spectators away from college sports and would upset the competitive balance among schools and conferences.
Several players testified during the trial that they viewed playing sports as their main occupation in college, saying the many hours they had to devote to the sport made it difficult — if not impossible — to function like regular students.
O'Bannon portrayed himself as a dedicated athlete who would stay after games to work on his shot if needed, but not much of a student. He said his job at UCLA was to play basketball and took up so much time that just making it to class was difficult.
"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," he 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."
Witnesses called by the NCAA spoke of the education provided to athletes as payment for their services and said the college model has functioned well for more than a century. They contended that paying players would make college sports less popular and could force schools to cut other programs funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars taken in by big-time athletics.
The head of the Big Ten painted a dire picture of what college sports would look like in his testimony, saying his conference would likely cease to exist and the Rose Bowl would probably not be played.
Jim Delany said the idea of paying players goes against the entire college experience and he couldn't see league members agreeing to it. If some did, he said, they likely would be kicked out of the conference because the move would create an imbalance among schools that could not be resolved.
"There wouldn't be a Rose Bowl if either they or we were operating in a very different wavelength in terms of paying players," Delany said.
That theme has since been echoed by college and conference administrators, even as they move forward on plans — prompted in party by the O'Bannon suit and a unionization effort by players at Northwestern — to give expanded benefits to athletes in the 65 schools that comprise the five biggest conferences in the country.
Rutgers law professor Michael Carrier, a specialist in antitrust and intellectual property law, said the outcome might not be scary at all because the money may not be huge and will be paid only after a player's career is over.
"My sense is something like making these payments after graduation are not really big game changers," Carrier said. "They're just giving the plaintiffs a little piece of the money many people would view them as entitled to. I don't think it will put college athletics out of existence."