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O'Bannon case judge denies players past damages

The SportsXchange

A federal judge will allow college football and basketball players from major programs to challenge NCAA rules prohibiting compensation beyond the value of their athletic scholarships, but denied them from pursuing billions of dollars in past revenues.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken issued her 24-page report on Friday, which paves the way for significant changes in the economic model of college athletics.

The case is known as the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit because the former UCLA basketball star is one of 25 plaintiffs signed on.

The ruling will help college athletes argue to receive a share of television and other media revenues. However, it also reduces the chances of forcing the NCAA to pay athletes who may have been wronged under anti-trust law. Players may sue for damages, but only as individuals.

Both sides of the lawsuit claimed victory in statements sent to ESPN.

"The court's decision is a victory for all current and former student-athletes who are seeking compensation on a going forward basis," said Michael Hausfeld, the players' lead attorney. "While we are disappointed that the court did not permit the athletes to seek past damages as a group, we are nevertheless hopeful that the court's decision will cause the NCAA to reconsider its business practices."

In a statement, the NCAA only acknowledged the part of the judge's decision regarding damages for past revenues.

"We have long maintained that the plaintiffs in this matter are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law," said Donald Remy, NCAA chief counsel. "This ruling is one step closer to validating that position."

However, the ruling essentially allows individual players to financially benefit from the business of college sports, according to Rob Carey, a lawyer who represents former Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller and others in a separate part of the case related to publicity rights.

"This ruling increases the likelihood that wholesale change will occur in college sports," Carey told ESPN. "It's like Major League Baseball when free agency came along."

In her report, Wilken wrote that the players' lawyers failed to provide a strong enough way of determining which members: were in the class; EA Sports built avatars for in its video games; appeared on game rosters in televised games.

"We are pleased that the court correctly found that conducting a class-wide trial for claimed damages for student-athletes who played college football and men's basketball going back nearly a decade would be completely unmanageable and unprecedented," Remy wrote. "The plaintiffs in this case were seeking substantial damages based on erroneous theories for maintaining a class. The Court correctly removed these claims from this case."

But Wilken mainly sided with the players by codifying Hausfeld as the lead attorney in the case, which was originally filed in 2009.

"Plaintiffs seek certification to pursue an injunction barring the NCAA from prohibiting current and former student-athletes from entering into group licensing deals for the use of their names, images, and likenesses in videogames and game broadcasts," Wilken wrote. "Their request for this injunction is not merely ancillary to their demand for damages.

"Rather, it is deemed necessary to eliminate the restraints that the NCAA has allegedly imposed on competition in the relevant markets. Without the requested injunctive relief, all class members -- including both current and former student-athletes -- would potentially be subject to ongoing antitrust harms resulting from the continued unauthorized use of their names, images, and likenesses. Because an injunction would offer all class members 'uniform relief' from this harm ... class certification is appropriate."

Carey said that, based on the ruling, players have to wait until after their college careers are completed before they can collect on media revenues that accrued but not shared. That increases the chances that the NCAA will prefer settling with plaintiffs, rather than risk going to trial.

A case management conference is scheduled for Feb. 20, 2014, to gather the two sides after they file responses to Wilken's ruling. A trial is set for next June.

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