Former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon’s 43rd birthday on Thursday August 14 will pale in comparison to the celebration that engulfed the NCAA sports landscape that developed recently with an antitrust lawsuit that could potentially change amateurism forever.
Last week a judge issued a 99-page ruling that pointed out NCAA limits on what Division I football and basketball players could be paid for playing violated antitrust laws. The judge also issued an injunction, separate from her 99-page ruling, that would prevent 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.
In 2009, O'Bannon lent his name to a lawsuit that was subsequently joined by several other former college athletes. Eventually, NBA legends Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell were added as plaintiffs.
The ruling was a tremendous blow to the NCAA model that has been openly criticized for years as being a billion dollar monopoly that cashed in on student-athletes particularly Blacks from underserved or improvised backgrounds.
O’Bannon, who starred at Lakewood Artesia High School before leading UCLA to its last NCAA men’s basketball championship, was the star name the lawyers required to elevate its case against the powerful NCAA.
“I don’t think he was involved in it as much as people think,” former UCLA coach Jim Harrick told the Sentinel during an exclusive interview this week. Harrick was O’Bannon’s coach at UCLA and speaks to him regularly.
O’Bannon has shied away from being compared to baseball revolutionary Curt Flood who risked his playing career in a court battle that eventually led to baseball free agency.
Flood, the former St. Louis Cardinals star, was defeated in court by Major League Baseball when he fought the game's reserve clause. But his willingness to challenge the long-established system played a major role in obtaining free agency rights for players.
"I have an idea of what he went through," O'Bannon told CBSSports.com. "I know that Mr. Flood felt alone a lot of the time when he was in pursuit of free agency. I do know what that feels like, I've got to be honest. But there were two different times and two different eras. The hatred that he went through just on a daily basis, I can't relate.
"I have an idea. I am a Black man in America so I can understand, and I guess I can relate in some respects. But I didn't go through what he went through. In that respect, I refuse to compare myself with Mr. Flood."
However, there is no mistaking the impact of what the Ed O’Bannon Lawsuit vs. the NCAA will mean to student-athletes beginning this year and beyond.
Barring a successful appeal by the governing body of collegiate sports, athletes can be compensated as much as the cost of their scholarships at no less that $5000 per year.
Scholarships, depending on the school, could range from as low to $15,000 to as much as $60,000 per year.
Harrick told the Sentinel that the lawyers challenging the NCAA needed a name with star power and O’Bannon was the name with that appeal.
A car salesman in Las Vegas, O’Bannon challenged the NCAA for suing his name and likeness in video games that the NCAA profited from. That lawsuit has since been settled out of court in favor of O’Bannon’s case.
However, he is not likely reap any huge sums of money as a result of his court challenges, although future athletes could.
The significant win in court when a federal judge ruled the NCAA has violated antitrust law by preventing athletes from being paid off their names, images and likenesses will forever be associated with the former McDonalds All American who scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in 1995.
The O'Bannon suit involved six active college football players to the case (one quickly dropped out). And by the time the trial happened this June, many prominent pro athletes publicly supported O'Bannon's cause.
He said that like Flood he felt alone at times during the case, but had support from his wife, children and friends. There were days he said he felt sorry for himself, maybe due to something in the case or because he wasn't selling cars at his job in Las Vegas, "but I knew what I was getting into."
"Why are you doing this? That's as criticized as I've been to my face," O'Bannon said. "Most people have been supportive. Look, I'm a grown man. I've got two kids in college and one will be in college. I'll be 42 in a couple weeks. I can handle criticism.
"I really don't care, quite honestly, what anyone says. I have been at the top of the college game and I have been at the lowest point of the college game, and anything in between. So there really isn't anything you can tell me that's going to ruin my day. I know what the athletes deserve because I was an athlete in college."
Perhaps that's where there are the most similarities between O'Bannon and Flood. They fought for what they believed was a greater cause for the future.
"To me, it boggles the mind that billions of dollars are made and the players -- the people that are actually doing a lot of the work to make these billions -- don't see any of it," O'Bannon said. "I think we're kind of moving toward they will eventually get a piece of that pie. The players didn't ask for all the TV contracts and all that stuff. They didn't ask for it. But now that it's there, because of their hard work and labor, they should be able to benefit."
"I know what the athletes deserve and I personally did all I could do to help the college athlete," O'Bannon said. "My parents kind of always told me whatever you do, leave the world a better place. Make your mark in a positive way and leave it in a better way than you receive it. I'm working on that. Criticism? Come on. Stop. I don't care."
He was drafted by the then New Jersey Nets and played for only two seasons, and finished his basketball career after playing for eight years over seas.