By Frank Deford
March 10, 2010

Today, Ed O'Bannon gets some company in a lawsuit that may conceivably lead to the end of amateurism in big-time college football and basketball.

O'Bannon was a basketball star at UCLA in the 1990s, but for the last few months he's been a lead plaintiff in a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. The suit claims that the NCAA should have paid he and his fellow big-time athletes for the use of their likenesses in video games.

The names of other former college athletes, some of whom played as far back as the 1960s, will be revealed today, giving more substance to the charge that the NCAA has, for decades, withheld hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars, from athletes. It made this money by merchandising players in not only video games, but DVDs, apparel, memorabilia, and other profit realms.

But as Jon King, the lead lawyer for the players, said "the case has much broader implications." That is to say, while the train is leaving the station on the side track of video games, the destination may well be the express end of amateurism -- that vestige from the nineteenth century, one almost unique to sport -- which postulates that athletes should happily perform for free, while everybody else in the game gets well compensated.

The NCAA, a nonprofit entity, must now open its books, and that's just the start. At trial, King maintains that the NCAA must somehow convince the court that it possesses an exemption from antitrust law. After all, NCAA members, which are the colleges, agree to do something collectively -- specifically, not pay players -- which is certainly the essence of antitrust activity.

So here's the nub for the NCAA: Explain the exemption that absolves the organization from compensating players for their labor.

So far, the NCAA, whose office is in Indianapolis, has spent a great deal of pretrial energy trying desperately to get the case shifted from San Francisco to its home court in Indiana. However, its effort did not pay off, as Federal Judge Claudia Wilken denied the request. Now, the discovery phase begins.

The outlook is bleak. The 2009 decision to award retired NFL players compensation for the use of their likeness in video games must surely hang over the NCAA's head. If old pros should be paid for the appropriation of their personages, why shouldn't old collegians?

King said he can only imagine the NCAA's defense being "a protection of amateurism." But in the last four decades or so, that old-world, upper-class concept has been abandoned in virtually all other high-profile, big-money sports -- first in tennis and then several Olympic sports. It simply seems illogical that American college football and basketball players still must lift the bale and tote the barge of amateurism by themselves.

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