College Players’ Likeness Lawsuit Cleared for Trial, Puts NCAA on Defense

The athletic association, which has taken its share of knocks in recent months on the issue of player compensation, will go in front of a jury to argue that it should not be required to pay likeness royalties to athletes.

In one legal case, the ball doesn’t appear to be bouncing in the NCAA’s direction.

Last week, a federal judge in California cleared the way for an ongoing lawsuit between current and former college players and the collegiate sports association to go to trial. The suit, involving who owns the rights to players’ likenesses, could lead to college players far and wide getting paid.

The trial, expected to begin June 9, will address the question of whether student athletes should be paid royalties for use of their images on mediums like television, video games, and clothing. Although U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken reconfirmed her previous ruling that the plaintiffs may not bring the case as a class action for damages over past use of their likenesses, the 20 named plaintiffs may seek those damages individually, USA Today reported.

The case was spearheaded by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who filed a class action over the use of his image in video games and television broadcasts. The lawsuit prompted the NCAA to cancel a long-running contract with video game producer Electronic Arts. (The company settled with the players last year, though the NCAA later sued to block the settlement.)

The case, which also addresses whether players “hold any ownership rights in their athletic performances” during live broadcasts, has led to speculation that a trade group may form to handle licensing and other compensation paid to student athletes. And it comes at a time when Northwestern University football players are succeeding with their unionization efforts.

NCAA response

The NCAA disagreed with some particulars of Wilken’s decision but said it welcomed the opportunity to move to trial. NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy said the association has “confidence in the legal merits of our case.”

Remy questioned in particular Wilken’s holding that the NCAA may not use at trial one of its key arguments for not paying athletes: that being required to do so would limit their ability to support women’s sports and more obscure men’s sports.

“The NCAA disagrees with the court’s decision that it is a not a legitimate justification for the NCAA to look out for the interests of women’s sports and other men’s sports. The NCAA values and prioritizes all of its student-athletes regardless of whether their sport brings in revenue,” he said in a statement. “The NCAA and member schools are committed to addressing areas for improvement in the current system, but efforts to twist legitimate concerns about the current system into a rationale for paying student-athletes would do far more harm than good and would severely diminish the opportunities for academic and athletic achievement student-athletes benefit from today.”

According to USA Today, Wilken also placed evidence requirements on two other arguments the NCAA plans to use at trial: that limiting athlete compensation promotes the integration of education and athletics and that it helps maintain competitive balance among schools.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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