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Former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon leads suit against NCAA over use of images

He and other former players allege the NCAA owes them share of profits from the sale of television and online reruns, video games, jerseys and other items.

July 22, 2009|Kurt Streeter

Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon was named Tuesday as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging former college football and basketball players are illegally denied a share of profits made by the NCAA through the sale of television and online reruns, video games, jerseys and other paraphernalia.

"I've always been one to wonder why former student athletes weren't compensated for their games on television," said O'Bannon, who helped lead UCLA to an NCAA championship in 1995. "The NCAA is making money off of DVDs and old reruns with people like me in it. Hey, I'm no longer in college. Something is wrong here."

The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California, seeks class-action status and strikes at the delicate balancing act that the NCAA has long performed.

The Indianapolis-based NCAA, a nonprofit organization sheltered from paying taxes because of its ties to higher education, brings in revenue that would be the envy of a large corporation -- its 11-year, $6-billion TV contract with CBS to broadcast basketball a prime example. Yet to maintain their amateur status, the NCAA can't allow its athletes to share in those profits, although it does provide many with scholarships.

Also cut from the revenue are former athletes, despite the fact they increasingly help make significant sums for the NCAA and business partners such as the Collegiate Licensing Co., also named in the suit.

Former athletes are featured in TV reruns of classic games and their generated likenesses, slightly altered, can be seen in videos. Their replica jerseys are sold in sporting goods stores and online. Also available online are actual, game-used jerseys, sold for hundreds of dollars each.

"We haven't had an opportunity to review the lawsuit, so we will defer comment at this time. However, the NCAA categorically denies any infringement on former or current student-athlete likeness rights," Bob Williams, managing director of public and media relations for the NCAA, said in a statement.

O'Bannon, a salesman at a Toyota dealership in Henderson, Nev., who was recently hired to be a high school basketball coach, said he hoped other high-profile athletes would join in the lawsuit. O'Bannon agreed to be the lead plaintiff after being approached by former shoe-marketing guru Sonny Vaccaro, an outspoken critic of the NCAA. Vaccaro is aiding the lawsuit as an unpaid consultant, said Washington, D.C., lawyer Michael Hausfeld, who is handling the case.

Said O'Bannon: "When the NCAA tournament comes around, every year, the old games always seem to be on some classic sports channel. Someone will say, 'Ed, I saw your games last night on TV. How much are you getting for royalties?' When I say 'I'm not,' they look at me like something is seriously wrong. That's really what this is about."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and changes in the way the NCAA compensates former players. It also accuses the NCAA of an antitrust violation for allegedly having its schools and conferences "artificially depress" former players' share of revenue to zero.

In May, former Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller filed a similar class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and video game maker Electronic Arts. A few weeks ago, former Rutgers quarterback Ryan Hart filed his own lawsuit for the same reasons.

And in November, in a case involving professional athletes -- former NFL players who contended they were being cut from profits made in marketing deals -- a federal jury in San Francisco ordered the NFL Players Assn. to pay $28.1 million in damages to retirees. The award was reduced in a settlement to $26.25 million.

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kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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