– Derek Allen, Attorney –

Last fall former basketball star Bill Russell, of Celtic and Wilt-Chamberlain-destroying fame, joined forces with former college basketball star and current trivia answer Ed O’Bannon to sue the NCAA.  These former college basketball stars, along with most students who played a college sport, signed an agreement with the NCAA which allows the NCAA to use the athletes “likeness” in perpetuity, and without compensation.

This allows the NCAA to do things like take past classic games and either sell the rebroadcast rights to television or replay the games online.  In its lucrative deal with Electronic Arts, a prominent video game developer, the NCAA sells the players’ likenesses for inclusion in video games.  If I fire up a copy of the latest college basketball video game on my X-Box, I can play as the college versions of Bill Russell and Ed O’Bannon even though they last suited up for their alma maters in 1956 and 1995, respectively.  For all of this, these players get nothing aside from the full scholarship they likely got to attend college.

The players allege that the deal is an impermissible restraint on trade, and for that reason violates federal antitrust law.  The suit could have far reaching effects on how college sports are broadcast.  I won’t pretend to know which side has the advantage under the Sherman Antitrust Act, but some informal polling at my house finds a majority of the household in Bill Russell’s corner.

The girlfriend thinks that players should get some monetary compensation when their likeness is used.  If the likeness makes money while the kid is still enrolled, she would put the cash in a type of escrow account until the athlete leaves school.  If the player’s likeness makes money after school, she thinks the NCAA should have to cut a check to the player.

The two cats split along the traditional lines in this debate.  Battlecat, agreeing with most fans, thinks the usual full scholarship is plenty of compensation for these players, while Johnny, siding with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, thinks the system is fundamentally unfair and that college players deserve far more than just a scholarship.  Johnny pointed me to a recent study that finds the average player in men’s college basketball would be getting over $250,000 a year if the NCAA paid its players the same share of its lucrative media deals as the NBA does.

As for me, I’ll pass on saying whether I think the plan violates antitrust law or is fundamentally unfair.  But I will agree with Grantland’s Charlie Pierce when he recently warned the NCAA that “in 1963, Bill Russell went to Jackson, Mississippi, and, in the face of the worst America had to offer, conducted integrated basketball clinics. In his way he helped redeem the distance between this country’s promise and this country’s reality. Bill Russell’s been threatened by experts, boys, and now he’s suing you. If I were you, I wouldn’t screw with Bill Russell.”

What’s your take?

  • timmaguire

    If the NCAA used the money to benefit students (or even just student athletes), they’d probably fare much better in the court of public opinion. In the court of law, the two cases might actually come out differently because the technology of the two eras. The court may find that electronic rights were contemplated in O’Bannon’s contract, but not in Russel’s (because such things didn’t exist in 1956).