The fight that Ed O’Bannon started with the NCAA isn’t over yet
Division I athletes do get scholarships and supplemental cash, but more could be done
In April 1995, Ed O’Bannon’s UCLA Bruins defeated Arkansas to win the men’s NCAA Division I national championship.
He scored 30 points, grabbed 17 rebounds that evening, living the dream that many college players never realize.
Then he awoke.
Twenty years after leading UCLA over Arkansas, O’Bannon handed the NCAA an even greater defeat. In August 2009, days after O’Bannon’s 31st birthday, a district court judge in the 9th Circuit ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by not allowing student-athletes to profit from their likenesses in broadcasts and video games.
The ruling was a major blow against a commercialized intercollegiate sports industry that, at its most competitive levels, masquerades as a co-curricular educational enterprise.
Today O’Bannon, 45, resides in Las Vegas with his wife and their two children. He loves the game of basketball, and looks forward to watching the NCAA tournament. But O’Bannon’s five-year battle against the NCAA permanently altered how he watches and how he perceives the college game.
“I’ve grown up,” he told me during a recent interview. “I’ve had certain experiences since we won our championship in ’95. I look at the game through a completely different lens.”
As a result of winning the suit, EA Sports took video games featuring college players out of stores.
O’Bannon’s fight against the NCAA is documented in a new book, Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA written with Michael McCann.
He wrote his book to inform, educate and to explain.
“I’m not some mad, angry former player who wanted to take a video game away,” he said. “That wasn’t my goal, but that happened, unfortunately.”
A major outcome of the lawsuit is that NCAA member schools are able to give athletes the full cost of attendance, something the NCAA had resisted. That allows scholarship athletes to receive a monthly stipend check that can be for as much as $500.
This is still not enough to cover living expenses and is insignificant when compared with the NCAA’s earnings from the men’s Division I tournament.
“If you live off campus, where does that go?” O’Bannon asked. “Probably to rent or groceries. After rent, groceries and gas and your insurance on your car, where are you?”
I have asked college athletes over the last few weeks for a dollar figure, a number. How much?
The answers have varied.
“I’m not saying half a million dollars,” O’Bannon said. “But I am saying something significantly more than they are getting so they can take care of those things.”
Critics of the NCAA’s system have proposed that athletes boycott or otherwise demonstrate for a greater share of revenue. O’Bannon argues for that as well. But he reminds himself — and critics — that it’s difficult for young players, caught up in the moment, to see the NCAA forest for the NCAA’s trees.
O’Bannon certainly could not.
When he was at UCLA, O’Bannon said, his goal was to play on a big stage, play with his brother, Charles, and win a national title for UCLA and for Los Angeles, where he was raised.
“That was all that mattered to me,” he said.
During his court testimony, O’Bannon went further, saying, “I was an athlete masquerading as a student. I was there strictly to play basketball. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility so I could continue to play.”
After a two-year NBA career and eight seasons playing in Europe, O’Bannon earned his degree from UCLA.
He knows some athletes feel the way he felt, but expecting them to rail against the system that feeds them is unrealistic.
“That’s a tall order for a 19-, 20-, 21-year-old to carry out,” he said.
Yes, a boycott “would completely change everything,” O’Bannon said.
If he knew in 1995 what he knows now, would his approach at UCLA have been different? O’Bannon said he would have been more vocal.
“I wouldn’t necessarily look to rally the troops and boycott, but I would definitely test the waters.”
By that he meant he would have asked players at other schools how they felt about possibly demonstrating.
The next barrier to fall as a result of his lawsuit will be allowing athletes at all levels of competition to sign endorsement deals.
Before the tournament began, the NCAA announced that, for the first time, the association had made $1 billion off the tournament.
That’s bad optics.
Although the money helps fund many non-revenue sports and other student-athlete initiatives, a billion dollars is a billion dollars.
“It’s not like they’re being greedy or unappreciative,” O’Bannon said referring to student-athletes.
On the other hand, there is value in having room, board, tuition and fees paid for in full. No one disputes this.
Anyone paying off student loans, any parent writing monthly tuition checks can appreciate the value of a debt-free exit from college.
Yet the athletes we watch over the next few weeks and those we watch during the college football season produce value.
How to determine a value that allows athletes to benefit and the intercollegiate system to survive is a challenge.
These are questions and dilemmas O’Bannon never considered in 1995 when UCLA won the NCAA title.
You grow and you learn.
“I look at the games in a much more educated way,” he said.
“I still love basketball and I get the kids. I know what they’re thinking because I was once that kid out there playing in front of millions of people, accomplishing my goals, living out my dream.”
He added: “I still love the game, but now I see it as more of a business and understand a lot of the moves that are being made.
“But the love of the game and the competitive nature the kids put on display are what I dig about the game and this time of the year.”