What is a Student Athlete?
In the five years since former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon filed a landmark antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, the case has evolved considerably.
What began as a case against the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) and EA Sports, the video game company, and only involved former athletes, became a class-action suit that included current players and targeted money coming from television contracts, the key driver of soaring revenues from college sports. In the fall of 2013, EA and the CLC settled with the plaintiffs for $40 million, just after the NCAA and some conferences decided to no longer license their trademarks to EA. The NCAA agreed to settle its share of the video game matter for $20 million just as the O’Bannon lawsuit began.
The question that remains is whether the NCAA has created a system that prevents athletes from sharing in the fruits of their labor, as they would be able to do in a free and competitive marketplace.
At the start of the O’Bannon trial on Monday, attorneys explored this question by focusing on the “collegiate model,” the intertwining of schoolwork and amateur sports. Can one be a big time college athlete and compete in the highest levels of football and basketball and, at the end of the day, still truly be a student? The NCAA says the model works, but critics like O’Bannon argue it’s practically impossible to do both.
O’Bannon, the star forward of the UCLA basketball team that won the 1995 national championship, painted a picture of his college experience in which basketball was the No. 1 priority. He told plaintiffs attorney Michael Hausfeld that he spent 40 to 45 hours per week focused on basketball compared to “maybe 12 hours a week” on academics. During his national championship run, he said he took final exams in a hotel ballroom.
When Hausfeld asked why he spent so little time on his studies, O’Bannon said, “Because I was there to play basketball.” As far as academics, he chose classes and a major that would fit his basketball schedule and he made sure that he kept the minimum 2.0 GPA.
“Whatever the minimum was, that’s pretty much what I did,” O’Bannon said. “I was an athlete masquerading as a student.”
Under cross examination, Glenn Pomerantz, an attorney for the NCAA, attempted to tease out the emotional and intangible elements of O’Bannon’s college experience.
O’Bannon agreed that he had taken some classes he liked, saying he “wanted to learn,” and said that he made a few friends in college. Indeed, O’Bannon met his wife at UCLA. He also acknowledged that it was an honor to wear the UCLA uniform and “build that tradition” that began with famed basketball coach John Wooden, adding that he learned a lot about teamwork from his coaches.
But O’Bannon also noted that he developed leadership skills on basketball teams prior to arriving at UCLA.
“I like to think that I became a good teammate in high school,” he said. “I got a pretty good education there as well.”
O’Bannon maintained that he chose to prioritize his basketball commitments above his academic pursuits. He hoped his time at UCLA would be a springboard to playing professionally in the NBA.
When asked by a reporter why so much time was spent on the emotional aspects of O’Bannon’s experience, NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy said, “The collegiate experience is something that’s part and parcel of what we’re defending here, right? It is the collegiate model that we’re looking at.” Remy added, “Mr. O’Bannon articulated some of the fond memories he had on his campus … and you realize that yes indeed, this is an educational pursuit that is part of the collegiate model.”
And would all that be lost if O’Bannon and the class of plaintiffs were compensated in some way? “Our argument is that it would change it drastically.”
Asked for his reaction after the day’s testimony, Hausfeld, the plaintiff’s attorney said, “One of the interesting points that the NCAA brought out was that there could be a regular student who practices music for 40 hours per week, a regular student who practices theater for 40 hours per week, and they can major in music and theater. You can’t major in basketball. The concept of a free education? You’re getting a scholarship in order to play ball. That scholarship is only good as long as you play ball. There’s nothing free about it.”