By Ken Reed

Frederick Douglas once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” It’s a great quote. However, most of the time, demands — even of the loud variety — won’t do the trick.

People in power, especially those with economic power, don’t change the models that have given them an advantageous position without being forced to. Historically, one of the best ways to force change in America has been through lawsuits. Right now, the NCAA is facing a doozy of a lawsuit. One that could change the entire system of big-time college athletics.

Obannon v. NCAA is an antitrust lawsuit filed in 2009 by a former UCLA All-American basketball player named Ed O’Bannon and a few other former college athletes. Basically, the suit claims that the NCAA shouldn’t be allowed to profit from athletes’ names and images without sharing royalties with the athletes (e.g., from video games, TV broadcasts and rebroadcasts, promotional videos, etc.). The suit also wants current and future athletes to be able to make licensing deals of their own. It’s a scary deal for the NCAA, made scarier for college power brokers by the fact O’Bannon’s legal team is arguing that the case deserves class-action status. If a judge grants class-action status in this case (a judge is scheduled to rule in June), the NCAA would be liable for claims brought not just by O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs but by potentially all former college athletes.

Most college sports observers are focusing on the potential class-action status and the financial ramifications that could result from that. To me, the most intriguing aspect is the prospect of college athletes being able to make their own licensing deals with sponsors. I like that. I also like allowing athletes to get paid for autograph signing appearances, and even allowing gifts from boosters or anybody else. Why not? Every other student on campus has those rights. Every other American has those rights.

It’s really not that outlandish of a concept. The old Olympic amateurism model was eventually broken down. Olympic athletes can now benefit from their talents. The AAU predicted that all hell would break loose in the Olympic movement if amateur athletes started to receive financial rewards. In reality, the Olympic transition from the amateur model has been pretty smooth and the Olympic Games have never been more popular.

Author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch calls the NCAA plantation system a modern-day civil rights issue.

“College athletes are citizens and their rights are being deprived by the NCAA in a way that’s basically collusion,” says Branch. “The NCAA system is not only unjust, it’s unstable.”

Here’s hoping the O’Bannon case goes a long way toward eradicating this unjust system.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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