Wednesday, June 19, 2013

the Ed O'Bannon case

At first it was just a friend’s son playing a video game, but as he looked closer, Ed O’Bannon took increasing notice of a figure on the screen.

One that O’Bannon said he thought looked remarkably like him.

In fact, it was, from jersey No. 31 to the trademark smooth left-handed jump shot in EA Sports’ “NCAA Basketball” game.

Nearly 14 years after he led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA basketball championship as the most outstanding player of the Final Four, O’Bannon said, “I was flattered initially. My first thought was, ‘That’s pretty cool. I’m on the video game.’ ”

Then, O’Bannon said his friend observed, “‘What’s funny about this whole thing is we paid X amount of dollars for it and you didn’t see one penny of it.’ ” And O’Bannon recalled in a phone interview Tuesday, “My thoughts went from flattery to being upset.”

O’Bannon’s ire eventually took the form of a potentially ground-altering lawsuit against the NCAA, video game giant Electronic Arts and the marketing firm Collegiate Licensing Inc., that goes before federal Judge Claudia Wilken on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif.

It frames the long overdue question of whether the often heavy-handed NCAA owns the rights to player likenesses and names on game jerseys and other items beyond their college eligibility and into perpetuity.
But it has also come to raise the broader, potentially more explosive issue of whether current players should share in the billions of dollars they help make for the NCAA and member institutions.

O’Bannon, who was joined in the suit by several other former athletes such as NBA Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, alleges their names and likenesses were used illegally in video games and other products the NCAA has profited from. The NCAA has denied it has acted illegally.

But the judge, who has so far refused motions to toss the case, has stirred visions of the NCAA’s worst nightmare in January by saying she would hear arguments Thursday whether to allow the case to be rolled into a class action suit. One that could, should a jury find in the plaintiffs’ favor, allow current athletes a share of NCAA revenue, including lucrative TV rights fees, for the first time in the organization’s century-old history.

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