At the start, this had been about finding someone to stand up and say the excuses were nonsense, the rhetoric was empty, to say the NCAA was just making it up as it went along.
It was about Ed O'Bannon wondering how the NCAA could partner in the release of a basketball video game featuring classic college basketball teams, including his 1995 UCLA squad, featuring a player that clearly was him – "my number, left-handed, looked like me," O'Bannon said – only to claim it wasn't him.
It was about Harry Flournoy, a starter on the historic 1966 Texas Western basketball team, seeing the NCAA, decades later, cash in on the story of the first all-black starting five to win a national title against establishment backlash (including, the players believed, the NCAA itself). They did it by suggesting that somehow Flournoy had relinquished his rights by signing some paper in El Paso way back when.
"Really?" Flournoy said. "Go find it, what paper? I never signed anything like that." Even if he didn't, the NCAA said, they had the power to assume the right to his likeness in perpetuity.
It was about Oscar Robertson seeing an NCAA-partnered trading card featuring him as a freshman at Cincinnati, nearly 60 years ago, with what was supposedly a swath of his "game jersey" attached and wondering not so much why he didn't get a cut of the proceeds, but why no one ever bothered to ask his opinion on the deal, or whether that was actually his jersey.
"The arrogance of the NCAA to say, 'We have the right to do this,' is what troubles me the most," Robertson said.
That was the start of O'Bannon v. NCAA, and for the ones who finally stood up and said enough was enough, the ruling in their favor Friday afternoon by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken was cause for celebration.
Finally, someone was just acknowledging the charade for what it was.
"I just wanted to right a wrong," O'Bannon said Friday night. "[We're all] celebrating a big victory tonight … a win where justice was served."
That much was true. Wilken rejected so many of the NCAA's classic arguments that often just go around in circles – you can't be paid because you're an amateur and you're an amateur because you don't get paid.
The case had evolved from the early days when this was just about name and likeness rights and turned into a showdown between an entrenched entity and a group of equally committed reformers. It became complicated and nuanced and confusing.
At its core, however, this was about putting college sports leaders' feet to the fire and blowing up many of their base ideals.
Wilken had no time for the suggestion that if players got a cut of the ever-expanding revenue pie, fans would flee. She couldn't follow the NCAA's claim that limiting compensation for athletes somehow enhanced academic performance.
She rejected the idea that anything more than tuition, room and board would upset competitive balance, because in a world of $100 million dollar facilities and rich coaching contracts, there isn't any competitive balance now.
She scoffed at the old saber-rattling theory that allowing schools to offer additional compensation would cause them to run from big-time sports and go Division III.
At one point in her 99-page ruling, she seemed particularly baffled by the NCAA claiming the reason more and more schools upgrade their football and basketball teams to the top division is not because it might result in more money or prestige, but because of a fondness and respect for the rules of amateurism. If they loved amateurism so much, why not drop down to Division III?
"This theory is implausible," Wilken wrote.
She seemed to find a lot of the NCAA's decades-old logic implausible.
So she issued an injunction preventing the NCAA "from enforcing any rules or bylaws that would prohibit its member schools and conferences from offering their FBS football or Division I basketball recruits a limited share of the revenues generated from the use of their names, images, and likenesses in addition to a full grant-in-aid." The NCAA has vowed to appeal.
While it was significant, it wasn't Armageddon for the NCAA. There's a cap on deferred compensation. She didn't mandate pay. She didn't say players could just run out and try to get their own endorsements.
It was a somewhat narrow legal ruling: a victory for the plaintiffs, a blow to the NCAA, but not a knockout. At least, not yet. Wilken still has two additional antitrust suits against the NCAA on her docket, and who knows what else this decision will create. These things can snowball in a hurry and there's huge money at stake. We'll see.
That's the future. This was simply round one, with so many questions and variances still to come. Any analysis that declares with certainty what's coming is folly.
O'Bannon always said he wasn't trying to end college sports, which had been so good to him. Many of the most successful and prominent former athletes were part of the lawsuit after it was initially filed back in 2009.
There had to be limits to the NCAA's reach, however. There had to be fairness. There had to be more than just empty talk justifying college sports barreling toward more and more commercialization while falling back on the intellectually bankrupt concept of "amateurism" – once dreamed up by British aristocrats to keep working-class athletes from beating them in sailing and dressage.
What's to come remains to be seen. What O'Bannon v. NCAA eventually means is yet to be written. This is one part of a multipronged effort that has caused college sports to get serious about reform, even if it's just finally moving on basic concepts that almost any reasonable mind could agree on.
Like that was Ed O'Bannon in the video game. Like Harry Flournoy never gave his likeness away. Like someone should at least have the courtesy to call 75-year-old Oscar Robertson and tell him about a trading card deal.
Like maybe a few extra bucks of spending money, better health care, guaranteed four-year scholarships, money put in a postgraduate trust fund, or whatever else might be in order is reasonable – especially considering how the conferences have now created entire cable TV networks off these guys.
That's the main thing that went down on Friday.
Someone finally said the NCAA's business practices were illegal. They also said they were wrong. And that might mean the most of all.
- Sports & Recreation
- Harry Flournoy
- Ed O'Bannon