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The latest in the Ed O’Bannon case, and why the NCAA’s headed for change

May 8, 2013, 10:35 AM EDT

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Back in 2009, Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA that has, in the years since then, become the single-biggest assault on the way that the NCAA does business.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the case, the basics are as follows: O’Bannon won a title and a few player of the year awards with UCLA back in the mid-90s, but when he saw his likeness in an EA Sports video game in 2009, he realized that everyone was still profiting off of him and his athletic accomplishments in college except O’Bannon himself. So he filed a lawsuit, and since then it has grown into a case that could change the entire business model of college athletics.

Back in January, a judge ruled that current athletes could be added to the case and that the plaintiffs could go after everyone profiting off of college athletics — the schools, the conferences, the television networks. The latest twist, as Jonathan Mahler of Bloomberg explains, is the potential for the case to become a class-action lawsuit.

And that’s what could end up being the difference-maker for those pushing for change. From Mahler:

In their latest filing, O’Bannon’s lawyers argue that the case deserves class-action status. If their request is granted, the NCAA would be liable for claims brought not just by the plaintiffs but also by all former athletes. Anyone who has ever played a Division I college sport would instantly be suing for damages for every instance in which his or her image was used in a video game, highlight reel, broadcast or rebroadcast.

That could get pretty expensive for the NCAA. But if the case were just about a few billion dollars, the association would have settled by now. It hasn’t because O’Bannon and his lawyers are also asking for something else: They want all current and future college athletes to be able to make licensing deals of their own. It’s short yardage from there to the NCAA’s doomsday scenario: schools bidding for the services of student- athletes.

Anyone that has read anything that I’ve written over the years knows that I’m staunchly pro-athletes. I think they should be getting paid. I think they should see a cut of the money that they help produce. Whether that comes from the school’s athletic department, independent boosters or through the Olympic model — allowing each athlete to sign sponsorship deals and profit off of his likeness — is something that can and will be debated.

But something has to change.

Because it’s silly to watch players have their names tarnished because the NCAA is fighting tooth and nail against the most simple and powerful principles of economics. In his terrific takedown of the NCAA from Monday, Patrick Hruby explains how the NCAA’s principles of amateurism are what creates the black market where runners like Rodney Blackstock toss AAU coaches like Darius Cobb thousands of dollars simply for the chance to get access to players like Ben McLemore.

McLemore, has a potential No. 1 pick in the draft, not only has a ton of current value, but his market potential value is through the roof. Agents, financial planners and marketing reps know this. They’re willing to spend money to get close to him. There is a demand for what McLemore offers as an athlete, and something as brittle as the NCAA rulebook isn’t going to stop businessmen from ‘investing’ in building those potentially lucrative relationships.

According to a study done by a Stanford economist, a Michigan basketball player in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 — when the Wolverines weren’t close to competing for national titles — would have made $250,000. A study by an economist from Cal. State-San Marcos said that Chris Webber was worth four times the $280,000 that he accepted from a booster.

NCAA rules aren’t going to stop money from changing hands when there is this much value being discussed.

The only thing it is going to do is keep it in the pockets of the third-parties — the agents, the AAU coaches, and, of course, the NCAA itself — and away from the players that are actually generating the revenue.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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