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00000176-770f-dc2f-ad76-7f0fad990000Monday at 5:44 pmEmail Sports at Large

Milton Kent: How College Sports Might Change Forever

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The nation’s attention will be turned this week to pronouncements from the Supreme Court on topics as varied as same sex marriage, affirmative action and voting rights. But, in a federal courthouse, 3,000 miles west of Washington, nothing less than the fate of college athletics as we know them in this country may be at stake.

Judge Claudia Wilken, chief judge of the Northern District of California, is hearing an anti-trust suit in which, if the plaintiffs are successful, college sports will be turned on its ear.

Former UCLA men’s basketball star Ed O’Bannon led the Bruins to the 1995 championship. After leaving the Westwood campus, O’Bannon wondered how school jerseys with his name and number were being sold and his likeness was being used in video games, but he wasn’t getting paid for it. O’Bannon, who played briefly in the NBA before playing in Europe, wasn’t the only one to wonder this. A group of fellow former athletes, including NBA immortals Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, pondered the same thing.

So, with O’Bannon in the lead, they filed the suit against the NCAA and those co-defendants, video game maker EA Sports and apparel maker Collegiate Licensing Company. The contention is that the trio essentially violated antitrust law by forcing athletes to sign waivers to give up the rights to their respective likenesses in perpetuity. The NCAA has contended that it does not control the likenesses of athletes after their collegiate careers end.

Do you think that if former Maryland men’s basketball star Juan Dixon, the hero of the Terps’ run to the national title 10 years ago, tried to sell jerseys that resembled the No.3 he wore in College Park, the school and the NCAA would give him an “attaboy” and look the other way?

Probably not, and that’s the point. The athletes say the schools, as well as corporate partners, have banked off the athletes for years, while the NCAA has made money off them both during their college years and after their eligibility is exhausted. The athletes have taken their suit to the next level by adding a claim to a share of television revenue.

If Wilken certifies the class that has brought the suit, and allows the proceedings to continue with television money in the mix, then the NCAA, the member conferences and the schools that comprise them could really find their hegemony over college athletics shaken to the core.

In pre-trial hearings last week, Wilken threw the NCAA and the companies a potential lifeline. She raised the possibility of injunctive relief, rather than damages, which would seem to help current athletes, rather than O’Bannon, et al. The problem is that the plaintiffs haven’t yet brought on a current athlete--and for good reason. It’s hard to imagine a student in this day and age enduring the almost certain pressure from his school and from that school’s alumni base to be a party in a suit that may not have a payoff, immediate or otherwise.

Still, from now until the time the case is adjudicated, the stadium at dear old State U. won’t be the only place where the action happens.

You can reach Milton Kent via e-mail with your questions and comments at Sports at Large (at) WYPR (dot) ORG. And you can follow him on Twitter: @SportsatLarge.