College Sports Legal Battle Wraps Up First Week

Jun 13, 2014

The biggest legal battle in college sports history is wrapping up its first week of arguments in a courtroom in Oakland, California.

Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon is the lead plaintiff in a class action suit against the NCAA.

Here & Now sports analyst Mike Pesca discusses what’s at stake in the lawsuit with host Jeremy Hobson.

Guest

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. The biggest legal battle in college sport's history is wrapping up its first week of arguments today in an Oakland, California courtroom. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon is the lead plaintiff in a class action suit against the NCAA.

And here to tell us all about it is HERE AND NOW sports analyst Mike Pesca, who hosts The Gist at slate.com. Mike, welcome back. And first just lay out the case for us. What is O'Bannon's gripe with the NCAA?

MIKE PESCA: So Ed O'Bannon is playing a videogame years ago, and it's one of these games that replicates the NCAA basketball. And there on the UCLA team is a guy who looks like him, who wears his number. It's not called O'Bannon but it's his height. And he's like, that's me. How am I not getting any money off of this?

And the case actually grows beyond video games to all of TV. And that's the case. Why aren't athletes, especially in basketball and football, why aren't they getting paid for what they do? I mean, break it down like that it's pretty much the big megillah of amateurism and college sports.

HOBSON: And what do they need to prove to make their case? And how are they doing so far?

PESCA: You know, it's a big lift. It would be a huge change. And so some of the things they need to do is to rebut the notion that amateurism is really important to the college fan. And they've had a couple of economists come on the stand and just offer many surveys that indicate that what college fans like is when their teams win. They don't care if a player is an amateur or not.

There are all these examples like Manziel who got paid to give autographs and the next day that he was - he played after being suspended and the fans cheered. The fans wanted him back. They don't - fans don't care about amateurism. They also have to prove how much money the NCAA makes and NCAA teams make, and that's a little hard. There's a lot of obfuscating of how much money it is. But a lot of these economists have done that.

Now, how they've done so far - you know, we could read into it because the judge herself is asking questions directly to plaintiff's lawyers. This isn't a jury trial. It's a bench trial. And the judge's questions do seem to indicate that she does not buy a lot of the NCAA's argument. But I don't know about the big questions.

So even if they're losing a little bit on the fact that amateurism is so important or the fact that, you know, we're really poor, there's this big question that I don't know how she's going to rule, which is the NCAA flatly says players have no right because they don't create the game. They don't own the stadiums. And they aren't employees. And that's what case law up 'till now has said. So that's what she has to decide on.

HOBSON: Well, and I remember a conversation we had recently with the president of the University of Delaware who says contrary to popular belief, we're not making any money on NCAA sports at this school.

PESCA: Right, although, and the economists have talked a lot about this, you know, the NCAA officially says ten teams make money. A couple of economists have put out arguments that show in Division 1 all but ten teams make money - and, like, little things. So the NCAA - a school could say oh, we're poor because this is how much our football team rakes in. Oh, do you count parking? No. Do you count merchandise? No. Do you count all these other things? No. Do you count the value of every time we say Northwestern? The branding? I mean, one expert was talking about, like, 75 percent of the times that Northwestern is ever mentioned in the media it's in the context of sports.

HOBSON: Yeah.

PESCA: So maybe that doesn't go to the bottom line. And these are some of the little things that are being hashed out in trial in service of this big thing - whether you have to really pay the athletes.

HOBSON: We'll keep watching. HERE AND NOW sports analyst Mike Pesca who hosts the podcast, The Gist, at slate.com. Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.