In an interview ahead of the publication of his new book, Court Justice, Ed O'Bannon discusses the reality of the student-athlete experience, why college athletes should be able to earn money and more.
Nearly nine years ago, former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon was watching a friend’s son play a college basketball video game when, on the screen, he saw a very familiar figure: himself. The digital player did not bear O’Bannon’s name, but it was a forward on the 1995 UCLA Bruins who wore the No. 31 and was his same 6’8” and 222 pounds, bald-headed with a lefty jumpshot. O’Bannon got a kick out of the sight, until his friend pointed out that the game cost $60 and O’Bannon wouldn’t see a cent of it. A seed was planted for a landmark legal challenge to the foundation of the NCAA’s business model.
The process of that challenge—known legally as O’Bannon v. NCAA, after O’Bannon signed on as the lead plaintiff in a case being mounted by former sneaker kingpin Sonny Vaccaro, among others—is chronicled in Court Justice, the forthcoming book by O’Bannon and SI legal analyst Michael McCann, to be released Feb. 13 by Diversion Books. In it, O’Bannon draws from his own experiences to shed light on the reality of the student-athlete experience and provide a thorough and thoughtful justification for his grievance that boils the argument down to easily digestible personal and economic elements. (You can read an excerpt here.)
Ahead of the book’s release, O’Bannon spoke with SI about the book and the process behind it by phone from the Henderson, Nevada, Toyota dealership where he has mounted his successful second act. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
SI: Putting yourself out there with this case in the first place was a difficult decision because it would expose you to a lot of backlash and criticism. With the book, are you kind of putting yourself out onto the battlefield again, so to speak?
EO: Yes. That’s exactly how I feel. This is something that really didn’t need to be done. But I had a number of people tell me that I should. For one, the people that where the backlash is coming from, those people don’t know me and don’t know my intentions. So they insisted that I write a book and kind of tell my story and give my experiences and put my thought process out there. Otherwise, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t read it. But it really was one of those things where a number of people where I care for their opinion told me to do this. With that being said, I just felt like I needed to really just, like you said, put myself out there once again. It’s not going anywhere. The subject is only getting stronger. Some people want to know where it originated from. That’s kind of the basis of the book.
SI: You mention this subject isn’t going anywhere. There are all sorts of issues directly and indirectly related brought to light by the FBI investigation and the revelations from that in the fall. It seems like that’s kind of become part of this same conversation. How did that impact the context of this book and the context of the argument you’ve been making?
EO: It weighed heavily on it. A lot of what we fought for as far as players either A) getting paid or B) at least getting compensated for their likeness, had something to do with what happened at Louisville in a roundabout way. What I mean by that is, if athletes were paid—in this case in particular, if college basketball players were getting paid—this might not have happened. If there was something coming in for that particular athlete going to that university other than a scholarship, then maybe this kid or the family doesn’t accept at least $100,000, from the number that I know of. If one is going on, then the other probably doesn’t happen. Who knows, but that’s my opinion.
SI: In the book you argue for being able to profit off your own likeness and image, kind of like the Olympic model that a lot of people—including myself—have seen as the simplest solution to this. But there are critics who say that would open the door to boosters or whoever just paying someone essentially to go to a certain school. What do you make of that kind of argument against it?
EO: I don’t think boosters are going anywhere. Boosters are going to be there. As long as a university has an athletic program, in particular football and basketball, that brings in billions of dollars or whatever, at least hundreds of millions of dollars, boosters are going to be there. Look, I don’t care how much athletes are getting paid. Boosters are going to be there. In my opinion you deal with the boosters as they come. But that doesn’t stop the fact that athletes get paid.
SI: Does it ever seem like too much of the discussion focuses on logistics? It seems like that’s often an argument used against the status quo.
EO: I think that’s a distraction. There are smart enough people at these universities to figure it out. In fact I think there is a solution. I think there’s a solution on paper, or at least one has been talked about. But the powers that be, whether it’s the NCAA or the universities, don’t want to pay the athletes, so they use that as a distraction. I believe that the solution is relatively easy. You open up the books, you see how much is made. The AD gets paid whatever they get paid. I’ve never been mad at the amount of money that any one person makes, be it the head football coach at one of the Power Five schools making millions of dollars a year—hey, more power to them. I would never want to take money out of the next man’s pocket. But what I do know is there’s enough money being made to where the athletes, and not only the basketball and football players, but gymnastics, wrestling, golf, tennis, baseball, softball. All the other sports can benefit.
I know when I was in school, I wasn’t looking for a million dollars from my university to survive. I would have loved to have a couple grand or whatever and just take my girlfriend to the movies and enjoy a month before my next check. That’s all I’m saying. It’s not to get the athletes rich and wealthy. It’s just something to get by until the next check. Maybe they can use the money to help their family out, whatever your situation is. But to answer your question, I think it’s a facade. Those questions are all smoke and mirrors to push the subject aside, put it on the back-burner.
SI: This isn’t really a question, but one interesting passage to me was when you wrote about your wife being discouraged from the nursing studies program because it clashed with her athletics commitments and the “clustering” practice common with college athletes’ academic advising. It’s interesting for them to argue that education is adequate compensation on one hand, and on the other kind of undermine that education at the same time. If anyone knows how compromised the education experience is, they should.
EO: Absolutely. With the practice schedule, the travel schedule, the playing schedule, the workout schedule, and everything that’s involved in being a Division I athlete, in particular a basketball player, there’s so much time dedicated to your craft, to your sport. There’s not a whole lot of time left for school and life. So when there are certain classes offered at certain times that you’re interested in and you can’t take, what do you do? On paper you’re there as a student-athlete, you’re there to get an education—and oh, by the way, also play basketball. But if you can’t take those classes because you’re in practice or you’re traveling, what are you saying? What’s the actual reason why I’m here? The reason why I’m here is I play basketball and I bring money into the school and the community and ultimately into the NCAA’s pockets. That’s what I’m here for. I had friends in my neighborhood that weren’t offered scholarships. Why? Because they weren’t as good basketball players as I was. Point blank, it’s as simple as that. Don’t tell me to be a straight-A student when you know and I know that I’m here first and foremost to play basketball and put money in your pocket. That’s what what it is.
SI: It’s funny to think about that stuff and especially the story about the nursing studies in light of those ads the NCAA has about how almost all of their athletes go pro in something else.
EO: Yeah, I can’t stand that commercial. Come on, man. Whatever.
SI: There’s another passage in the book where you write that you and your teammates were thinking about this kind of stuff even when you were in school. I know the Fab Five called out the school profiting off their jersey sales while they were at Michigan. Did you ever try to discuss this with reporters?
EO: No. Not at all. At that age, you do as you’re told. You don’t ruffle any feathers. You’re told that the position that you’re in is one that you can’t mess up, or don’t take for granted. You’re a kid and you keep your mouth shut, you keep your head down and you work hard. You’re best seen and not heard from. When you’re in the throes of it all as an athlete, you see it and recognize it and you even talk about it with your classmates and your teammates. But there isn’t a whole lot you can do because there’s no representation. You’re by yourself. You’re an 18, 19-year-old person on scholarship. So what can you say? There’s nothing you can say. So you keep your mouth shut and march forward. We talked about it but no one had any plans on doing anything about it.
SI: Do you think it might have been different in the social media age, where you guys could have gotten your message out there quicker? I’m thinking of Shabazz Napier a couple years ago during the tournament, when he talked about going to bed hungry some nights. He said that to reporters but it seemed like it became a big deal on Twitter when it might not have been as big a story without it. If those were avenues were there, might you have handled it differently?
EO: Absolutely. Things would have been different. This is a different time and a different means of communication. There’s absolutely no question. Another perfect example is Josh Rosen, the UCLA quarterback. He was very outspoken about being a college athlete on scholarship at UCLA—the benefits as well as the hypocrisies of his situation. And he got a lot of backlash as well. People questioned his hunger and drive to be a great quarterback because he had an opinion of his situation. And this is a person, to my understanding, who comes from money, who really when it comes down to it didn’t need his scholarship, could have went to UCLA and paid his own way. So when people like him recognize the hypocrisies of the NCAA, then yes, absolutely, back then we would have been more boisterous. Then again, at least I would like to think we would have been. Who knows. What I do know is I would love to go back and be in a position to where I can voice my opinion. I would have said something. If I could talk to myself back then, I would have said something.
SI: What would you tell yourself?
EO: Just find some representation. Fight the system. Do what you can to change it, because maybe by the time you’re 45 the system will have advanced along with the game. It’s funny how the game changes and college changes and life changes and society changes, but the rules the game is governed by haven’t changed. I would tell myself back then do what you can to get the ball rolling so by the time you’re in your late 30s, mid 40s, the game will have changed. That would be my message to me.
SI: How encouraging is it to see today’s athletes speaking out about this?
EO: It’s very encouraging. I think it’s a beautiful thing. I remember when I was in college and I was walking the halls at UCLA, there were countless times where non-athlete students were standing up for different causes. I remember walking to class—I’ll never forget as long as I live, though I don’t know the cause—there was a group of people who went on a hunger strike to get a rule or a law changed. They slept in tents on campus and just starved. I saw them for X amount of days. Every time I went to class, they were out there. They got their message across and things eventually changed. I just thought that was so admirable, so courageous. Talk about committing. If the rule doesn’t change, you don’t eat and eventually die. I just thought that was unbelievable. That’s why you go to college. To me, that was part of the education. It’s not always cracking open a book and reading. My education came with life experiences. And that was one. I saw people stand up against the system and get what they wanted because they committed to it. I don’t want to say that particular action changed my life, but it was a major influence on why I did this. If they could do it, and I saw them do it, why can’t I?
SI: You mention in the book how the optics may have been different had it been a white student-athlete who brought this case. How do you think the reception might have differed?
EO: The idea that a black athlete such as myself has done this, a lot of the reception that I get is I’m in it for the money and I need the money. It’s been a money grab for me. Which is pretty far from the truth. I never was in it for that. And if I come from an affluent background, maybe the sentiment would be different. That’s the feedback that I’ve gotten.
SI: There’s a point in there that I’m not sure a lot of people are aware of, as far as the context of this argument, which is the agent-like advisers hockey and baseball players are permitted to have. The book makes a good point that some of that is the result of competition because there are youth leagues that they have to compete with in hockey in Canada and in baseball you can get drafted out of high school. But the racial dynamics certainly aren’t lost on you either. How far do you think those two factors go to explain the differences between the sports and why basketball and football players can’t have advisers?
EO: First and foremost, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. The differences between the two are by design. I think the powers that be, a long time ago, when they made up these rules, knew the demographics between the sports, between football and basketball, and baseball and hockey. There are more black people playing basketball and football and there are more white people playing hockey and baseball. I don’t see that as being an accident. And I think those rules need to change. The rules for basketball players with agents—if you get an agent out of college [after entering the draft early], your eligibility is completely done as an amateur athlete. And that’s unfortunate because sometimes you can be misinformed on your draft status. I just don’t understand why the athletes should be punished if they were misinformed and wanted to go back to school and continue to thrive. Is the sky going to fall because they go back to school? Is the world going to end? Why can’t all sports be the same? Why can’t you have representation and then if it doesn’t work out or whatever go back to school and try again later on? I don’t get why you can’t do that. But that’s one of the rules right now. Hopefully it’ll change.
SI: You say in the book that all student-athletes should get the same amount of money. But at another point you argue that black student athletes are being disproportionately exploited. I took that as being because they’re the ones that are playing the sports that are most valuable and the ones most hurt by not being able to be paid, because in football and basketball you’d be able to get the most money. So if athletes all get the same amount, wouldn’t that also be in some ways still profiting off black athletes in a disproportionate way? They would be the ones bringing in the money but it would be going to everyone equally.
EO: Well, yes and possibly no. Black and white, you’re absolutely right. If the superstar on one team gets the same amount of money as someone who sits on the bench of the swim team, there’s a difference there. But also, if you are the superstar on the basketball team, for example, the possibility of you getting outside compensation—say Toyota wants to put you in a car and then stick you on some billboards around town and give you a car to drive so everyone sees you in a Camry. That might help with bridging that particular gap. For me, it’s more about opening the doors; the emphasis for me is the possibilities, the potential of earning money shouldn’t be taken away because you’re an amateur, because you’re a college athlete. If you don’t make the money, if no one seeks you out and wants to pay you outside of your scholarship, then that’s on you. But I don’t think the NCAA has the right to say I can’t earn money because I’m on scholarship. That’s more of the point. The fact that you’re on scholarship and they have rules in place where you can’t make money is the bigger issue, to me, than players getting paid.
SI: So you’re arguing for a combination of things. Everyone would get paid the same by the school because they would then have the opportunity to earn outside money for as much as they’re worth.
EO: Exactly. If you’re worth more to a company, you as an individual, then the NCAA in my opinion shouldn’t and doesn’t have the right to keep you from earning that money. That’s a big one to me. Again, I don’t understand why that is in place.
SI: In the book you write about former athletes who have joined the case and you hearing from them over the course of it. How much have you spoken to current college athletes about these issues?
EO: Not a whole lot. I’ve purposely stayed away from current athletes. I don’t want want to come across as a militant. I don’t want to come across as someone who is there to specifically play them into my thinking. What I do know is a lot of the current athletes know of the lawsuit but don’t really know the details. I just kind of figured they would find out as much as they want to find out and learn as much as they want to learn. That’s probably not the way that Sonny Vaccaro and Michael Hausfeld, who’s my lawyer, wanted it. They wanted me to talk to more current athletes about this lawsuit. I just kind of put myself in their shoes. If I was a current athlete would I want someone coming up to me? I don’t know how receptive I would be. So I just purposely stayed away. My daughter was on a basketball scholarship. My son had a baseball scholarship. I didn’t even talk to them about it. My nephew is on basketball scholarship at USC—I didn’t talk to him about it. I didn’t want to influence their situation. If they wanted to come into my world, hey, I’m an open book. I will talk to them until the cows come home about it. But I just didn’t want to force it on them, so I stayed away.
SI: You advocate for transfers being able to play immediately at their new schools. That keeps bubbling up as something that might actually happen. How much do you think that the momentum that idea has gotten is the result of athlete rights pushes like yours?
EO: I think the system is moving in the right direction as far as that is concerned. Athletes shouldn’t be punished if they transfer. The common argument to that is coaches leaving all the time to go to different schools and get jobs and coach right away. And the coaches are the ones that bring the athletes in. So if the coaches can leave and work right away, why shouldn’t the athletes be able to do the same? That one is moving slowly in the right direction and I think that’s great. It should be that way.
SI: You also call National Letters of Intent a “one-way contract” in the book. Do you think we should or will see a challenge to those?
EO: Yes. I think we should and I think we will. The fact that 17-year-olds are forced—and they are forced—to sign this contract without representation, for life, is one of the biggest yet small injustices of this whole situation. The fact that they sign this contract and their likeness is therefore given up forever to the universities and the NCAA is a crime. That is one thing I would change. If I could go back, I would make myself get a lawyer and I would change it. I wouldn’t try to change the whole system, but I would change my letter of intent. I’m here for four years or five years, once I’m done I’m taking my license with me. And anytime you use it you’re going to have to at least call and ask me for it. I would do that. I think athletes should have representation and I think the letter of intent should change. I think the wording in it should change. Athletes should be able to not only control their likeness when their eligibility is up, but also while they’re in school. It’s one of the biggest arguments of this whole thing, but it just wasn’t talked about enough.
SI: You were reticent in some ways to take this on and put your name on it. How comfortable are you now with this potentially being your legacy in the sport?
EO: Very comfortable. I wasn’t initially. There were times I wished that I didn’t do it, that I wasn’t a part of it, that it would just go away. But it’s who I am and who I’ve been for the past 10 years. It’s who people identify me as. The person that I am now and the person that I have tried to portray for the past 10 years has grown up a lot and has looked at the college game in a completely different lens than I did prior to this lawsuit—and I’ve looked at life, quite honestly, through a different lens.
SI: How’s that?
EO: Before, it was all about me. It was all about my family. I wanted to get as far away from the game and as far away from the system, as far away from college and pro athletics as I could. That’s why I got into the car business, to be honest with you. It was something completely different. I wanted to be successful at something other than playing basketball. I wanted to look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘I’m not only a basketball player, I’m a businessman.’ I didn’t want to be a coach. I didn’t want to be in the administration. I didn’t want to do color commentating. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any of that stuff leading into the lawsuit.
During the lawsuit, being involved in it and engulfed in it, I saw different things about myself that I just didn’t think existed anymore. That was the love of the game, the love for other players, the love for the players coming up through the system. It sounds weird, but I had conversations with my old self. What I mean by that is I thought back to when I was in school and I said to myself, if I was looking at myself as a 20-year-old man, and I look at myself as a 38-year-old man, would I be happy with myself? I thought, hey, I have an opportunity to change the system. If I don’t take this opportunity, my 20-year-old self would be upset with me. So I’ve been trying to make my old self proud by stepping up and doing something about college athletics and whatever I can. I’m proud to be who I am and have whatever label I have. I think it’s a good thing.
SI: What’s the next step in your fight?
EO: To get the word out there. This book is more to educate, and to entertain. I wanted it to be an easy read and I wanted the reader to get something out of it. I wanted the reader to understand where I’m coming from. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not to influence, but to basically just help you understand what my thought process was. Along those lines, that’s really what I want to do. I just want to get out there and talk about the system, where it is, give my opinions on where it should go, and that’s really it. Hopefully things will change. I know they are, in a molasses-like manner. I’m excited that they are changing. You’ve got to crawl before you walk. That’s kind of where we were. So where I go from here is just spread the word and give my opinion to whoever will listen and go on about my life. That’s half of my life. The other half is to continue to be here at my job and provide for my family and enjoy life. I’ve got a kid playing college baseball. My daughter is coaching high school basketball. That’s where my support lies. It’s an easy life, but it’s a fun one.