The New York Times
LAS VEGAS -- Lawyers for the former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA on Tuesday, claiming former athletes should be compensated for the use of their images and likenesses in television advertisements, video games and apparel.
The lawsuit, which did not include a dollar amount sought, will bring into focus how the NCAA handles player images, especially after players leave college and are no longer bound by NCAA rules, and its vast licensing deals, which are estimated at about $4 billion. None of that money goes to the former players whose images, jersey numbers and likenesses are used.
"We really couldn't believe that these compensation practices still existed in any kind of industry," said Jon T. King, a partner at Hausfeld, a Washington-based law firm that is representing O'Bannon. "We do antitrust cases in all sorts of industries, and when we learned about this disparity, it was literally shocking to us."
The NCAA declined comment, saying it needed time to review the lawsuit. But an NCAA spokesman, Erik Christianson, said, "The NCAA categorically denies any infringement on former or current student-athlete likeness rights."
O'Bannon said he was approached about becoming the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit about a month ago by Sonny Vaccaro and his wife and business partner, Pam. Vaccaro is a longtime sneaker executive who has thrived on tormenting the NCAA and fighting for the interests of young athletes.
Vaccaro said that Tuesday was "one of the happiest days of his life" and that he expected numerous former college football and basketball players to join the suit.
"I'm not looking to overthrow the government or the NCAA," Vaccaro said. "I'm looking to do the right thing. They don't own them and they're going to have to explain it."
O'Bannon played parts of four seasons in the NBA and now works in marketing and sales for a Las Vegas-area car dealership. He said he was financially secure but had not earned enough money during his basketball career to retire.
He said he agreed to become the face of the lawsuit more for issues of fairness than for money. The lawsuit said the NCAA was using images of O'Bannon on "numerous DVDs and photographs offered for sale by the NCAA and its business partners."
O'Bannon said: "My biggest thing really and truthfully is making sure that every student-athlete gets compensated for what they've done. If your likeness is being sold, you should be compensated."
The NCAA will be going against a team of lawyers that includes Michael Hausfeld of Hausfeld and William A. Issacson of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Hausfeld has recovered billions of dollars for clients worldwide on cases ranging from slave labor during World War II to price fixing. Boise, Schiller and Flexner has been involved in cases like United States v. Microsoft and Bush v. Gore.
Hausfeld said the lawsuit would end up seeking a "huge sum of money" because the NCAA and its licensing partners are booming businesses that are only getting bigger.
For the NCAA, the crux of the issue will be the "08-3a form" that student-athletes sign, giving up their names, likenesses and rights to receive compensation from the NCAA and its third-party partners.
"It's a one-year contract that ends when the student is no longer a student-athlete," Hausfeld said. Two former college football players have previously filed suits over the use of athletes' images in video games.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economist specializing in sports at Smith College, predicted that the case would give the NCAA an opportunity to re-evaluate its views on amateurism.
"I think this is a fairly clear-cut ethical issue here that the NCAA is asking for trouble on," Zimbalist said. "They need to retreat and reassess what they're doing. As they do that, they have to look at the phony and false way they try to delineate what amateurism is."
He added: "This is a wedge issue here. It's a foot in the door to open all sort of question about the hybrid model of the NCAA."