Judge rules that NCAA ban on student-player pay is illegal

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

College football and basketball players could be in line for paydays worth thousands of dollars once they leave school after a landmark ruling Friday that may change the way the NCAA does business.

A federal judge ruled that the NCAA can't stop players from selling the rights to their names, images and likenesses, striking down NCAA regulations that prohibit them from getting anything other than scholarships and the cost of attendance at schools.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, California, ruled in favor of former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and 19 others in a lawsuit that challenged the NCAA's regulation of college athletics on antitrust grounds. The injunction she issued allows players at big schools to have money generated by television contracts put into a trust fund to pay them when they leave.

In a partial victory for the NCAA, though, Wilken said the body that governs college athletics could set a cap on the money paid to athletes, as long as it allows at least $5,000 per athlete per year of competition. Individual schools could offer less money, she said, but only if they don't unlawfully conspire among themselves to set those amounts.

That means FBS football players and Division I basketball players who are on rosters for four years could potentially get around $20,000 when they leave school. Wilken said she set the $5,000 annual threshold to balance the NCAA's fears about huge payments to players.

"The NCAA's witnesses stated that their concerns about student-athlete compensation would be minimized or negated if compensation was capped at a few thousand dollars per year," Wilken wrote.

The NCAA said it disagreed with the decision, but was still reviewing it.

But Sonny Vaccaro, the former athletic shoe representative who recruited O'Bannon to launch the suit, said it was a huge win for college athletes yet to come.

"The kids who are going to benefit from this are kids who don't even know what we did today," Vaccaro said. "It may only be $5,000 but it's $5,000 more than they get now."

The ruling comes after a five-year battle by O'Bannon and others on behalf of college athletes to receive a share of the billions of dollars generated by college athletics by huge television contracts. O'Bannon, who was MVP of the 1995 UCLA national championship basketball team, said he signed on as lead plaintiff after seeing his image in a video game authorized by the NCAA that he was not paid for.

Any payments to athletes would not be immediate. The ruling said regulations on pay will not take effect until the start of the next FBS football and Division I basketball recruiting cycle. Wilken said they will not affect any prospective recruits before July 1, 2016. The NCAA could also appeal, and has said previously that it would take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.

Former athletes will not be paid, because they gave up their right to damages in a pre-trial move so the case would be heard by a judge, not a jury.

As part of her ruling, Wilken rejected both the NCAA's definition of amateurism and its justification for not paying players. But she did not prohibit the NCAA from enforcing all of its other rules and regulations and said that some restrictions on paying players may still serve a limited purpose if they are necessary to maintain the popularity of major college football and basketball.

"The big picture is the NCAA lost the definition of amateurism it has been pushing for years," said Michael Carrier, a Rutgers law professor and antitrust expert.

Wilken was not asked to rule on the fairness of a system that pays almost everyone but the athletes themselves. Instead, the case was centered on federal antitrust law and whether the prohibition against paying players promotes the game of college football and does not restrain competition in the marketplace.

During a three-week trial in June, attorneys for the NCAA said moving away from the concept of amateurism where players participated for the love of the game would drive spectators away from college sports and would upset the competitive balance among schools and conferences.

Several players testified during the trial that they viewed playing sports as their main occupation in college, saying the many hours they had to devote to the sport made it difficult—if not impossible—to function like regular students.

"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," O'Bannon said at trial. "I was there strictly to play basketball. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play."

Witnesses called by the NCAA spoke of the education provided to athletes as payment for their services and said the college model has functioned well for more than a century. They contended that paying players would make college sports less popular and could force schools to cut other programs funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars taken in by big-time athletics.

The lawsuit was part of a tide of pressure on the NCAA to change the amateur model. Football players at Northwestern University have pushed to be allowed to unionize, and other lawsuits have claimed that athletes have a right to better compensation. This week, the NCAA's board voted to allow the five wealthiest conferences in the country to set their own rules, paving the way for the 65 schools in those conferences to potentially offer richer scholarships and health benefits to players.

Carrier said the outcome might not be scary at all because the money may not be huge and will be paid only after a player's career is over.

"We'll soon see that this isn't the end of the world as we know it," Carrier said.

"The irony of this is that a lot of the other changes in college sports going on were made because of this impending ruling."


  • The times they are a a changin'
    Dear Lee...we are talking about billions of dollars here...the people who make that money are the Universities, the Athletic Directors, and the overpaid, mostly megalomaniacal college coaches like Nick Saban, John Calapari, Coach K, Petino, etc. You think those entities are going to give it back just because a Judge said they may have to pay a player $5,000 per year?...it's pocket change, that ship sailed when Walter Byers signed the first TV contracts for the NCAA 40 plus years ago (and he warned everyone when he signed those deals that eventually the ideal of the amateur athlete would be corrupted by the money to be made...how right he was)...don't think Indiana University suddenly talking about a "student athlete's bill of rights" all of a sudden was an accident...they knew the NCAA's phony amateurism model wasn't going to stand up in court...did you know that Gordon Gee, the AD at Ohio State, got a $17,000 bonus when some kid on the wrestling team won an NCAA championship this year? Why? Because Gee is a guy who can shake hands and work wealthy alumni for money and bring lots of dough to OSU...the kid works himself to death (if you know anything about wrestling you know what I mean by that) and the AD gets a big bonus on top of his 7 figure salary? How stupid is that? Gee did nothing to help the kid achieve that title...just as coaches can do nothing without players...the people who have the overblown sense of entitlement are the Mark Emmerts and Nick Sabans of the world, not some kid celebrating a slam dunk...this ruling will harm nothing, and was long overdue. As for Ian's take, he doesn't watch Pro Basketball...but he loves March Madness because that somehow represents "amateur sports" to him...seriously, Calipari (check and see what John gets paid Ian and tell me if he is doing what he does just for the love of the game) and Kentucky represent amateur sports? And they played UConn in the championship game, they of Jim Calhoun who served more that one suspension for violating NCAA rules and was openly contemptuous of the organization throughout his 25 year coaching career. And then you say your favorite time of year is the NFL season? You think the NBA is full of prima donnas, but not the NFL...a sport where every pass reception for a touchdown is punctuated by the umpteenth interpretation of the "end zone boogaloo", where guys sack the quarterback and then dance around him like they are sacrificing someone to the Gods...no, money certainly hasn't corrupted the NFL game, just the NBA, and now that we are going to pay some college athletes $5k a year they are going to be corrupted??? No overpaid athletes in football, just the NBA...unbelievable...you know, when Manning was with the Colts, they could have fielded a better defense if Peyton had left some of his $18 million per year on the table...but he didn't, because it doesn't work that way...and it won't work that way when Andrew Luck gets his big payday in a couple of years either...he's going to take what the market value is when the time comes, and the Grigson's job is going to get a lot tougher...there are prima donnas in every sport, and every walk of life...they aren't going to magically appear because of this ruling, they have always been there, paid or not...March Madness works because basketball is a team game, and a well drilled experienced team from Mercer can defeat Coach K and his team of one or two year blue chips in a one game do or die scenario...last Ian, I feel sad for you that you don't watch the NBA...there was no better display of team basketball put on in recent memory than that of the Spurs in this years' NBA Finals...how can that be? A dozen multi millionaires proving that for them, the game is about more than just the money...It is impossible for me to understand how people who think this ruling to pay college athletes is harmful come to that conclusion...you have completely ignore the absolute hypocrisy on which the current system is based to do that. Wake up...sports are nothing without the athletes, period. The fact that the NCAA was in the process of changing its own rules prior to this decision being handed down is proof that they knew the whole model was a sham to start with...I am highly skeptical that players will ever get more than pocket change anyway...Nick Saba is still going to get his $7 million a year, and he'll get a raise everytime he hints he feels 'Underappreciated"...talk about something that should make you want to vomit...
  • wow...
    This ruling sets the stage for future prima donna college athletes with an overbloated sense of entitlement. March Madness is my favorite sports time of the year (next to NFL season). I don't watch pro basketball for this very reason. When the game's about money and not about love, a player's perspective gets morphed. Watch and see if the list of demands for heavily favored freshmen doesn't get longer, and the lawsuits for even more player demands above and beyond this ruling don't start coming.
  • remove the profits from the NCAA and make it amateur sports, no big dollar arenas, stadiums, just sports
    So if this is the case then the NCAA should be amateur as well and no big bucks should be earned, endorsements, big TV revenues, etc. Put it back the way it was, just fans in the stands, no TV revenue, no sponsorships, no big bucks, and no big bucks NCAA, just an amateur sports organizations.

    Post a comment to this story

    We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
    You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
    Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
    No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
    We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

    Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

    Sponsored by

    facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

    Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
    Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
    Subscribe to IBJ
    1. So as I read this the one question that continues to come to me to ask is. Didn't Indiana only have a couple of exchanges for people to opt into which were very high because we really didn't want to expect the plan. So was this study done during that time and if so then I can understand these numbers. I also understand that we have now opened up for more options for hoosiers to choose from. Please correct if I'm wrong and if I'm not why was this not part of the story so that true overview could be taken away and not just parts of it to continue this negative tone against the ACA. I look forward to the clarity.

    2. It's really very simple. All forms of transportation are subsidized. All of them. Your tax money already goes toward every single form of transportation in the state. It is not a bad thing to put tax money toward mass transit. The state spends over 1,000,000,000 (yes billion) on roadway expansions and maintenance every single year. If you want to cry foul over anything cry foul over the overbuilding of highways which only serve people who can afford their own automobile.

    3. So instead of subsidizing a project with a market-driven scope, you suggest we subsidize a project that is way out of line with anything that can be economically sustainable just so we can have a better-looking skyline?

    4. Downtowner, if Cummins isn't getting expedited permitting and tax breaks to "do what they do", then I'd be happy with letting the market decide. But that isn't the case, is it?

    5. Patty, this commuter line provides a way for workers (willing to work lower wages) to get from Marion county to Hamilton county. These people are running your restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and retail stores. I don't see a lot of residents of Carmel working these jobs.