HENDERSON, Nev. ― The first time Ed O’Bannon went up against the NCAA he was an 18-year-old with some serious talent and even more serious aspirations to play basketball at UNLV.
Against an organization homing in on Jerry Tarkanian and his band of Runnin’ Rebels, it was no contest. O’Bannon got the news he would not go to the college of his choice while on the road with a traveling basketball team.
“I cried,” he said. “I had worked my tail off to be good enough to accept a scholarship and be part of that team. What kid at that time didn’t want to go to UNLV? For the NCAA to take that away was absolutely upsetting.”
Nearly a quarter century later, O’Bannon is getting a rematch. His landmark suit demanding college players get some of the hundreds of millions of dollars they generate every year could change the way big time college athletics are operated.
All because of a chance encounter a few years ago at a friend’s home, where a certain bald-headed, left-handed forward wearing a UCLA uniform in a video game looked awfully familiar. It was O’Bannon, leading his team to the national championship in 1995.
“Initially it was, wow, pretty cool. I was fired up,” O’Bannon said. “But I immediately went from being fired up to being embarrassed. Then I thought, this is BS.”
To O’Bannon it was simple. The NCAA was making money off his image, and so was the video game company. He and the other players portrayed were getting nothing.
O’Bannon and others filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, challenging its ban on paying athletes. The suit also named video game maker Electronic Arts, which settled for $40 million in September and said it would no longer make video games featuring college teams.
The NCAA, though, battles on. Lawyers are scheduled to go before a federal judge in Oakland on Thursday on a motion to throw out the suit, saying the NCAA has no rules that force athletes who want to be paid to go to school and that paying elite athletes would take away money used to fund other athletic programs.
The fight has become almost a crusade for O’Bannon. It’s not about money, he says, but the principle of fair play.
“There are not a whole lot of people in the world I don’t like,” O’Bannon said. “But I think that organization is an absolute sham.”
Fond of UCLA days
The man at the forefront of the crusade against the NCAA sells cars for a living. Six days a week, he’s at the sprawling Findlay Toyota dealership in this Las Vegas suburb, where occasionally customers recognize him as the star of the UCLA team that won the national title.
O’Bannon had wanted to come to Las Vegas much earlier, but his plans to play at UNLV fell apart when the Tarkanian was forced to resign under pressure from the NCAA for alleged recruiting violations. He signed with UCLA instead, and was the star of the team that went 32-1 and won the school’s first national title since John Wooden retired 20 years earlier.
O’Bannon is fond of his days at UCLA, and proud of his accomplishments. But even then he knew something wasn’t right about a system that offered little more than room and board and books for his services.
“I remember sitting at study hall with my teammates and we were upset because practice ran late and we didn’t quite make it to the cafeteria in time,” he said. “You’re sitting there hungry and you’ve got no money in your pocket to go to KFC and eat. We were bringing all this money into the school and were not seeing any of it.”
O’Bannon was drafted ninth by the New Jersey Nets the year he was named MVP of the Final Four, but his NBA career never took off. He played three seasons for the Nets and Dallas Mavericks, then spent another seven years playing on teams in Europe and South America.
He made some money, and his family got to see a lot of Europe during his travels. He has no regrets, even if it wasn’t the career he envisioned.
“I thought I was going to be a multiyear all-star. I thought I’d have a Hall of Fame career,” O’Bannon said. “It was going to be nothing short of what Magic Johnson did. He was the player I saw as a benchmark of how a basketball career should be.”
O’Bannon and his wife, a school counselor, live with their three children in an upscale community. Baseball is actually his first love, but to keep his hand in basketball, he is helping out this season coaching his son’s high school team.
He’s proud of going back to UCLA to finish a degree in U.S. history, proud of being the person that could change the way the NCAA does business. He’s also proud of his job selling cars, where he feels like he is part of a team, much like in his playing days.
“I like to think of myself, not as a sales person, but more as someone who helps with the decision making,” he says. “What I don’t do is convince someone to purchase a vehicle. I tell people I’m still going to sleep well at night if you don’t buy. My existence doesn’t depend on whether you buy a vehicle that particular day or not.”
Trial set for June
On a recent weekday O’Bannon sat at a table in the sales showroom, interrupted occasionally by other employees walking by or customers stopping to say hello.
Instead of selling cars, the 41-year-old was talking about the lawsuit that challenges the NCAA over its rules prohibiting little more than books, tuition and room and board to athletes.
“I do see a place for it [pay] in college sports,” he said. “I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with it.”
But the NCAA does, insisting that the model of student-athletes getting a college education in exchange for their talents on the court or field is a good one.
The organization takes in an average $771 million a year off the TV rights to its basketball tournament alone. It claims the suit’s demand for revenue from television licensing fees should be thrown out, because the NCAA has a First Amendment right to televise newsworthy events.
There are signs the NCAA is feeling the heat. At the organization’s annual meeting last month in San Diego, large conferences proposed a $2,000-a-year stipend to help athletes. The stipend was approved in 2011 but shelved after small- and medium-sized schools argued that they could not afford the payments.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken recently ruled against giving the suit class-action status that could have expanded it to include thousands of former athletes, saying there was no way to determine which of the former players might have been harmed by NCAA rules. But O’Bannon’s suit ― tentatively set for a trial in June ― can go forward and others could bring similar actions.
Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law, says the lawsuit could alter the way the NCAA does business, with the possibility of college sports returning to the way they were operated prior to 1951 with the power resting at the school and conference level.
Then, he says, it would be up to the individual conferences to decide whether to pay players ― and how much.
“Certain conferences such as the Ivy League will probably maintain status quo,” Edelman says. “Other conferences like the SEC might agree to improve financial conditions for student-athletes as a way of inducing them to attend their schools. And conferences like the Big 10 will be conflicted. On one hand they will say they won’t pay athletes but if the SEC allows it some of the best student athletes might choose to go to SEC schools instead. That’s just the free market.”
O’Bannon said he’ll be happy when that day comes.
“All I knew is something needed to be said,” he said. “My biggest thing was to bring awareness to this and to right a wrong. I’m not looking for money or a payday.”
Meanwhile, he’ll keep plugging away, working as hard at the dealership as he did on the basketball court.
“Whatever happens I’ll come into work the next day and do what I can to sell cars,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”