That concept will be put on trial in an Oakland courtroom this week.
A class-action antitrust suit led by former
Former and current players want a share of the lucrative television contracts and video-game endorsement deals the NCAA generates by using their names, images and likenesses.
But money is only part of the equation in O'Bannon vs. NCAA, which is scheduled to begin Monday in federal court before Chief District Judge Claudia Wilken and should last two to three weeks.
"The NCAA wants to protect this fiction of the noble athlete," said Orin Starn, a Duke professor who studies the culture of athletics. "This has the potential to be a landmark moment in the way we view college sports."
The case dates back nearly five years to when O'Bannon, who had been a
"I thought that was wrong," the former player previously said. "I thought that a change needed to be made."
Although some of the most popular college sport video games— produced by
The 2011 version of "NCAA Football," for example, has a
O'Bannon's legal challenge evolved over the years, adding plaintiffs and bringing television into the mix.
Video game revenues for the NCAA have been estimated at less than $10 million annually, but broadcast rights have skyrocketed. CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting paid more than $10.8 billion to secure the men's basketball tournament through 2024. The
Only star players in football and men's basketball would receive significant money if O'Bannon wins, say experts, who add that revenue sharing isn't likely to sink Division I athletic programs.
"When you add up everything, it's not that much," said Rod Fort, co-director of the
EA Sports recently agreed to a $40-million settlement with 100,000 current and former athletes. The payments will reportedly range from $48 to $951 per season for players included in video games dating back to 2003.
The O'Bannon plaintiffs recently dropped their demand for individual damages; they want only to compel a rule change.
Under current regulations, student-athletes must sign a waiver that grants the NCAA, conferences and schools permission to use their names, images and likenesses. The O'Bannon plaintiffs portray this as a violation of antitrust law.
NCAA lawyers characterize the system as essential for several reasons.
Though college sports has been rife with corruption — boosters paying star players, agents sneaking cash to athletes — the NCAA says the aura of amateurism distinguishes its product from professional leagues and attracts fans.
The rules also promote competitive balance, preventing rich schools — the ones with the most star players — from buying up even more than their current share of the best high school talent, the NCAA says.
"We are prepared for trial and look forward to presenting our case to the judge next week," Donald Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said in a statement.
If O'Bannon wins, athletes might soon be allowed to receive money from agents and get paid to sign autographs. To avoid paying current players, the plaintiffs say, the NCAA could establish a trust fund and hold the money until they leave college.
"I could see this as being the first crack in the traditional foundation of amateurism in college sports," said Matt Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University.
If the NCAA wins, it would preserve the status quo, but not necessarily forever.
Other lawsuits have focused on video-game revenues and enlarging scholarships to address costs beyond tuition, room, board and books. Football players at
Experts see these efforts as proof of momentum building toward change.
O'Bannon will provide the first legal test. NCAA President
Though Duke professor Starn suspects this case could narrow the perceived gap between college and pro sports, he doubts it would harm the NCAA's popularity.