LAS VEGAS (AP) – This year is different for Ed O’Bannon, even if things have yet to really change. For the first time he goes into March Madness known more for being the guy who upended big time college athletics than the player who led UCLA to the national title in 1996.
For the first time he’ll also make some money off the NCAA Tournament, but more on that later. Selling cars is still how he makes his living, even if now he’s known as more than just someone who can get you a good deal on a Toyota.
“I’m on the streets recognized as the guy who took on the system, which I love,” O’Bannon said. “This lawsuit meant so much to a lot of people and will mean something to athletes in the future. I am truly honored to be in this position and be known as that dude.”
NCAA attorneys will return to court Tuesday to challenge that dude, taking their argument on the purity of amateurism in college athletics to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. They will try to convince a three-judge panel that a federal judge erred last year in ruling that Division 1 basketball and football players have a right to be paid for use of their images and likenesses.
That it’s happening on the eve of the tournament that brings an embarrassment of riches to the NCAA – some $800 million this year alone – is mere coincidence. That the major colleges are already changing the way they treat their athletes in the wake of O’Bannon’s successful lawsuit isn’t.
“I’m not stupid, I know the conferences and universities are changing the rules now because they have to,” O’Bannon said. “It’s unfortunate it came down to having to go to court but the rules are changing and people’s ways are changing nonetheless.”
O’Bannon didn’t set out to change the world of college athletics, though he ended up doing just that. He was more concerned with righting a wrong when he was at a friend’s house and saw his image being used in a video game as a member of the UCLA team that won the national championship in his senior year.
The player, like O’Bannon, was a lanky lefty who could score almost at will on the inside. He had the same No. 31 uniform number and the same UCLA jersey.
All that was missing was the name on the back. That, of course, and a check from the NCAA or the video game maker for use of his likeness in the game.
As the lead plaintiff for the suit demanding a cut of the profits for college players, O’Bannon testified at the trial that he viewed playing basketball at UCLA as his job and only did enough at school to keep himself eligible. As a player who sometimes went hungry at night if practice went long and he didn’t have enough money in his pocket to buy KFC, he knows firsthand how athletes got nothing but books and tuition while everyone around them made money.
“It’s happening all the time and we’re going to see it a million times this upcoming month,” O’Bannon said. “We will see athlete likenesses being used ad nauseam and the athletes themselves will get absolutely nothing out of it monetarily.”
That may change as soon as next summer, when U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling will take full effect. She has banned the NCAA from enforcing its rules on amateurism, and set a baseline of $5,000 a year to pay players – but not until after they leave school – for the uses of their names, images and likenesses.
Wilken’s ruling gave athletes something for their service, and the rush by the big schools to offer more scholarship money and benefits in the wake of the ruling show that it was correct.
It comes too late to help O’Bannon or the 19 others who were the listed plaintiffs in the suit, which did not ask for monetary damages. He says he wasn’t in it for money to begin with, and lives comfortably with his family in an upscale suburb of this gambling city. He has no plans to stop selling cars, a job he enjoys going to six days a week.
“Money was never the goal,” O’Bannon said. “There was never a pursuit of monetary gain in this lawsuit for me.”
O’Bannon will be getting paid something this year. The makers of Kingsford charcoal have put together a campaign where O’Bannon will grill with friends on Thursday and get paid $1, up to $25,000 for every use of the hashtag #PayEd.
It’s a clever marketing tool for Kingsford, but also a declaration of support by the company for athlete rights. And O’Bannon is more than happy to fire up the grill for the cause.
“It’s a beautiful thing that they recognize the athletes. They came to me and wanted to use my likeness and also wanted to compensate me for it,” he said. “It’s the American way.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://twitter.com/timdahlberg