Despite Stanford’s example, NCAA loses O’Bannon case in U.S. District Court

On Aug. 8, U.S. District Court judge Claudia Wilken ’71 ruled that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust law for its use of student-athletes’ names, images and likenesses in the landmark O’Bannon vs. NCAA case. Her ruling allows student-athletes in revenue sports to receive money beyond just the cost of attending college once they have graduated, though the NCAA will be able to set a cap on these payouts at a minimum of $5,000 a year.
Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir (above) testified as an NCAA witness in the O'Bannon trial. (NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN/isiphoto.com)

Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir (above) testified as an NCAA witness in the O’Bannon trial. (NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN/isiphoto.com)

The Cardinal’s successes under the current model of college athletics are so pronounced that the NCAA called on Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir as a witness in the case on June 18 and 24. Though Wilken’s decision must be upheld in higher courts, it stands as the first nail in the coffin of the current NCAA system — one that has seen Stanford thrive as a model athletic program.

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The lawsuit was initiated by former NCAA athlete and NBA player Ed O’Bannon, who sued the organizing body of collegiate athletics in an attempt to win the right for former players to profit off their own names, images and likenesses. Though the amateur model is deeply ingrained in college athletics, the billions of dollars in revenue that the NCAA collects each year — with hundreds of millions being invested in coaching staffs across the country alone — are provoking new challenges to the longstanding system.

On the other hand, the NCAA has argued that a major goal of college athletic programs is to integrate student-athletes into the rest of the student community, which is why, according to the NCAA, athletes should receive the same treatment as non-athletes. In addition, the body has argued that compensating student-athletes would result in the financial collapse of the collegiate athletic model; “there would be no more national championships,” according to NCAA president Mark Emmert, if athletes become paid employees.

Finally, the NCAA would point to the realities of collegiate athletes trying to make it to the professional ranks; while many student-athletes dream of playing their sport professionally, only about one percent of college athletes go on to play professional sports. Of this one percent, a good number of athletes will struggle with job security as professionals, while others may suffer from either chronic or career-ending injuries. As such, in the eyes of the NCAA’s leaders, the educational value that athletes can derive from their time in college validates the current college athletic system.

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As the winner of the prestigious Directors Cup for the 20th year in a row, Stanford has been a model athletic program for Division I schools across the country. However, Stanford is even more well known for being one of the best universities in America.

“When you really look at it, it kind of makes sense that these people have natural (athletic) ability but are Stanford caliber,” explained Stanford head football coach David Shaw in a recent CBSSports.com article. “They’re highly motivated people.”

Muir said in the same article that Stanford student-athletes have been “going through the same rigors as general students.”

The fact that Muir was called on as an NCAA witness in the O’Bannon trial is indicative of Stanford’s status as a role model under the current system.

“When you look back at it, maybe we can be that shining light to a certain degree for the NCAA,” Shaw told CBSSports.com. “You can have high expectations, you can find student-athletes who play great football and basketball and still graduate on time. Those are things people say it can’t happen at other places, but we say, ‘yes we can.’”

If other universities are going to follow in Stanford’s footsteps, they are going to have to emphasize the “student” in “student-athlete.” The NCAA has long held that education should be the first priority in college athletics, even for athletes that plan on playing professional sports. This does not mean that schools should not focus on fielding competitive teams; rather, it simply means that athletes should be held to the same academic standard as non-athletes.

“The balance we’re trying to get with our student-athletes hopefully symbolizes to a broader audience that it can be done in both realms — and done well,” Muir told CBSSports.com.

As Stanford’s accomplishments on the athletic field and in the classroom indicate, it is not impossible to be successful in both athletics and academics, because Stanford students have done just that.

However, even as the “golden child” in the NCAA community, Stanford still has its flaws. For example, Muir’s testimony at the O’Bannon trial revealed that an action photo of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan was being sold on the school’s website for $120. To the case’s plaintiffs, that’s just another example of how student-athletes are exploited for their names, images and likenesses.

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The legal issues surrounding the O’Bannon case go beyond the simple debate over compensation for athletes in college sports. In particular, the O’Bannon suit was also about whether the NCAA, due to its large national influence, constitutes a monopoly.

Along those lines, the case also considered whether NCAA rules on non-payment to athletes are an unlawful restraint on trade. O’Bannon’s representation argued that NCAA rules effectively prevent college athletes from controlling the commercial rights to their names, images and likeness, which they argued violate the antitrust provisions of the Sherman Act.

On the other side, the NCAA had precedent in its favor. In a 1984 case between the NCAA and the University of Oklahoma, the Supreme Court held that athletes must not be paid and must be required to attend class. There is no overruling Supreme Court precedent, at least until the O’Bannon case reaches the Supreme Court itself. Although precedent is a strong argument for now, if this case reaches the Supreme Court, it will not hold the same power as it did in the District Court.

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So, what’s next? For starters, the case is far from over. Despite this week’s outcome in District Court, the NCAA will likely file a stay or injunction pending appeal, which would send the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for a couple of years. Given the high stakes involved, it is entirely conceivable that the NCAA will look to the Supreme Court to resolve the matter once and for all.

During this long process, the NCAA will take the opportunity to further gauge the strength of its legal case, and where needed, make incremental adjustments to both hedge the outcome, and improve its standing in the court of public opinion. As such, this decision at the District Court level is only the beginning of what will be an incredibly long and expensive battle between Ed O’Bannon and the NCAA.

Contact Ethan Teo at ethanteo99 ‘at’ gmail.com.