A thorny dispute over college athletes' right to make money could be resolved in Oakland court, where a federal judge will decide whether the National College Athletic Association is a mercenary "cartel," or a well-intentioned training program.
Lead plaintiff and former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon is steering a class-action anti-trust suit against the organization, demanding half the revenue generated from its television contracts. He argues that, because college sports is essentially a full time job for players -- and a major cash cow for universities -- athletes should have a right to profit from their own likenesses.
The NCAA argues, to the contrary, that athletes form symbiotic relationships with university sports programs, and that, in return for their work they receive a free education, mentorship, and a college diploma.
This issue has been particularly contentious at UC Berkeley, where many athletes are advised to take courses on sports-related issues, and shunted into academic programs that barely resemble those of the general population. The reasons for this may be pragmatic -- athletes often work more than 40 hours per week on their sports, and might enter the university with lower grades and SAT scores than their peers -- but it's also been cause for criticism.
Last year, Cal suffered the double ignominy of being a Pac-12 loser, and also having the lowest graduation rate among the nation's 72 intercollegiate athletics programs.
Right now, the class-action plaintiffs have another recent court settlement working in their favor. On Monday, the NCAA settled a separate lawsuit with Redwood City-based video game maker Electronic Arts for using players' likenesses in various gaming franchises. As part of the agreement, the NCAA will dole out $20 million to current and former Division I basketball players and Bowl Subdivision football players, the Wall Street Journal reports.
That sets a precedent for paying student athletes, who've long been considered willing participants in their own exploitation. In a separate settlement, Electronic Arts has agreed to remunerate 100,000 student athletes and alumni for NCAA-themed games dating back to 2003.
The O'Bannon suit is scheduled to last three weeks. It could transform the relationship that athletes have with universities, and make it more overtly transactional. Or it could retrench the old system, in which athletes provide four years of free labor, in the hope that they'll eventually go pro.