Sonny Vaccaro already feels like a winner, no matter how a federal judge rules in the antitrust lawsuit he helped bring against the NCAA.
He believes college athletes are winners, too, now that universities are moving toward reforms that were barely being discussed before the joint pressures of lawsuits and union possibilities started to be felt in the highest level of college athletics.
“In a sense we’ve won already,” said Vaccaro, who recruited former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and others to bring the court case. “The Big 10 is now going to give four-year scholarships, Indiana has a bill of rights for athletes, and schools are expanding medical care. None of this would have happened without O’Bannon.”
A push by the five biggest college conferences to offer expanded benefits and pay to athletes may not have happened, either. But the biggest change in college sports may still be to come, following a three-week trial that ended Friday in a federal courtroom in Oakland, California.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken may not know much about sports, as she frequently acknowledged during the trial. But she knows a lot about federal antitrust laws, and those are at the core of the 5-year-old lawsuit that could for the first time open the door for Division I college football and basketball players to get paid.
Wilken is expected to issue a ruling in the next few months on a request for an injunction that would prohibit the NCAA from enforcing rules against paying players for their names, images and likenesses (NILs).
Plaintiffs led by O’Bannon argued during the trial that the NCAA’s rules on so-called amateurism are anti-competitive and allow the organization to operate as an illegal cartel. NCAA witnesses and attorneys responded by claiming amateurism is the only real model for college sports and that those sports would suffer if players were allowed to profit.
“Forcing changes through litigation to benefit only a select few would have far-reaching, detrimental effects on college sports as a whole, potentially reducing the opportunities for future generations of student-athletes to enjoy the benefits that make college sports special to its participants and fans,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement.
The trial centered at times on issues so complex and arcane lawyers on both sides struggled at times when arguing them. Plaintiffs presented experts who testified that the NCAA unfairly and illegally blocks athletes from selling their own NILs, while the NCAA’s own experts painted a bleak picture of college sports should a tradition of amateurism that dates back more than a century be overturned.
The effects, however, will be more clear cut. Should the plaintiffs win – and win again and again on appeals the NCAA has vowed to take all the way to the Supreme Court – they envision a system where athletes at top football and basketball programs will not only get a college education, but a parting check when they leave their university. The money – which would come from the billions of dollars now flowing into new television deals – would be doled out equally among team members, and those who stay the entire four years will get the most.
Much like Vaccaro contends, though, things will continue to change in college athletes even if the NCAA prevails. The biggest conferences already begun plans to add several thousand dollars in stipends to 65 member schools, along with guaranteed four-year scholarships and improved medical care for athletes.
Indiana last week said it will immediately begin guaranteeing four-year scholarships as part of a new athlete bill of rights that also covers the full cost of education and includes a personal iPad and university blazer for formal occasions.
“Do you think any of this is a coincidence?” asked Vaccaro, who spent most of his career peddling athletic equipment to colleges before becoming convinced reform was needed. “They took away the four-year scholarship in 1971 and suddenly they’re now giving them back?”
Legal analyst Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust issues, said he believes the plaintiffs will prevail on the antitrust issue.
“The NCAA didn’t have the law or facts on their side in this trial,” Edelman said. “Armed with bad law and facts, even the greatest collection of lawyers and economists can’t ultimately change the outcome.”