The O'Bannon Decision: What Does It Mean For Athletes And The NCAA?

After starring at UCLA, Ed O'Bannon played just two seasons in the NBA. (Isaac Brekken/AP)
After starring at UCLA, Ed O'Bannon played just two seasons in the NBA. (Isaac Brekken/AP)

On Friday, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA cannot prevent colleges and athletic conferences from compensating men's basketball and football players for the use of their names, images and likeness. In other words, the current model --  TV networks pay a whole lot of money to athletic conferences and colleges for the right to broadcast games; college athletes play those games and pocket none of the cash — will change.

But just how much?

Uncertainty seems to surround two issues in particular:

1. The Cap:  Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA can set a cap (a cap that can be as low as $5,000 a year) on the amount players are compensated. Some onlookers say $5,000 is chump change — not fair compensation for the players who help reel in millions of dollars in TV money. Others say the specific dollar amount doesn't matter — because any compensation establishes a legal precedent.

2. Competitiveness: Does this ruling mean Boise State will never have a shot against Alabama? Or that Butler and all the other Cinderellas will have to skip the Big Dance come March? Some believe the O'Bannon ruling will make it harder for smaller athletic programs to stay relevant, as the Ohio States and Michigans will take advantage of the ruling to throw more money at star recruits. Others say this argument is overblown: wealthier athletic department already outspend everyone else on facilities and coaches, yet smaller programs have always found ways to stay competitive.

Here's a roundup of what the analysts are saying:

On The Payment Cap:

From Ben Strauss, Steve Eder and Marc Tracy for The New York Times:

Wilken gave N.C.A.A. officials hope that any required changes might not be the death knell that seemed imminent.

The limit on payments to athletes could be as little as $5,000 a year, the judge said.

"It shows that no matter who is determining the future of college sports, nobody wants to see it blown up immediately," said Dennis Cordell, a former lawyer for the N.F.L. Players Association. "She said those football and basketball players aren't amateurs, but we're going to appease everyone with a $5,000 cap."


Cordell, the former lawyer for the N.F.L. players union, said: “It essentially gave the N.C.A.A. a salary cap, where in the professional league you would have to collectively bargain for that. I don’t see any justification for the $5,000.”

From Charlie Pierce for Grantland

The confusion on the trust funds seems to indicate that Judge Wilken took seriously one part of the NCAA’s case — that allowing the compensation sought by the plaintiffs could result in a price war among the schools in question. But, in the context of her entire ruling, in which she refers to further necessary reforms being the province of the NCAA or even (horrors!) Congress, capping the compensation can be seen as her attempt to give the NCAA one last chance to confront that big bag of obvious before someone else forces the NCAA to do so. The trust fund is the last lifeboat left on a foundering ship.


While its tepid endorsement of the NCAA’s paternalism is unfortunate, that also would seem to be the most fragile element of the matter. The moral case for not paying revenue athletes a portion of the money their work brings in has utterly collapsed, and it is incoherent to say that paying an athlete a few thousand dollars in trust for each year of an athlete’s work is proper, but that paying the athlete more than that, and sooner, is not. 

From Sharon Terlep and Ben Cohen for The Wall Street Journal

The ruling doesn't represent the worst-case scenario for the NCAA, said Tulane law professor Gabe Feldman, but it marks a departure from the legal system's historical deference to the NCAA. "It without question chips away at the NCAA's amateurism foundation," he said.

From Michael McCann for Sports Illustrated:

To be sure, football and men’s basketball players will soon obtain a new type of compensation because of Wilken’s order, and in that regard, O’Bannon is clearly victorious. But up to $5,000 a year while in college, payable after college, is not quite the all-encompassing change that some NCAA critics sought.

From Patrick Hruby For Sports On Earth

Wilken's injunction is only half the story. Actually, not even half. More like a footnote. The real news is in her decision, and the headline is as follows: as a legal defense theory, amateurism is now about as useful as Zoroastrianism.


Should [O'Bannon's lawyers] have pushed for more? A wholesale demolition? Perhaps. The association's case was surprisingly weak. That said, the O'Bannon team's restraint was calculated — likely making it easier for Wilken to rule in their favor by giving her the opportunity to direct college sports toward eventual fairness and antitrust compliance, as opposed to demanding that she dismantle the NCAA's entire economic system all at once.

On Competitiveness Across The NCAA:

From John Branch for The New York Times:

The only certainties appear to be that the rich are getting richer and the poor will fall further behind.


"Clearly we are moving away from parity," Thomas Boeh, Fresno State athletic director for nine years, said as he watched football practice on Monday morning. "We are certainly moving to a Darwinian model."

From Kevin Trahan for SB Nation:

If there's a big winner here, it's the blueblood schools, who have the money to pay every recruit in their classes $5,000 per year. Middle of the road schools, who could have offered different amounts based on how much they value recruits — offers that could have stacked up against the bigger schools — are hurt, as are schools that may not be able to afford offering full cost of attendance scholarships

From Patrick Hruby for Sports On Earth:

Nothing will change. The big fish of college sports will still out-recruit and outperform the minnows, and the compensation caps mean that schools like Ball State won't be able to strategically target their resources and outbid schools such as the University of Kentucky for the occasional five-star high school basketball player. Ohio State University will not replace the University of Michigan on its football schedule with Bard College. Women's lacrosse teams will solider on as money-losing, feel-good university marketing tools. The sky won't fall; it won't even get cloudy.

More NCAA Coverage:


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