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NCAA Athletes Can Challenge for Future Revenues, Judge Rules

A federal judge set the stage on Friday for a potential challenge to the economic model of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, partially certifying a class action lawsuit filed by 25 former and current student-athletes.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that former and current NCAA Division I men's basketball players and Football Bowl Subdivision players whose "images, likenesses and/or names may be, or have been, included in game footage or in videogames licensed and sold by [the NCAA], their co-conspirators, or their licensees" can challenge the NCAA for its policy prohibiting compensation for athletes. The court prohibited athletes from seeking payment for past use of their names, images, and likenesses as a group, however. (They can seek damages individually.)

The ruling opens the door for certain current and future NCAA athletes to collect revenues from the sale of television rights and video games featuring their likenesses. That should pique the attention of any high school men's basketball player of football player interested in continuing their athletic careers at the collegiate level.

"This ruling increases the likelihood that wholesale change will occur in college sports," said Rob Carey, a lawyer representing college athletes in a separate aspect of the case, to ESPN's Tom Farrey. "It's like Major League Baseball when free agency came along."

Carey told ESPN.com that the ruling increases the likelihood that the NCAA will seek to settle the case before it goes to trial next June. He also said that under the ruling, collegiate athletes would have to wait until after they graduated to collect on any revenues they accrued during their playing days.

Both sides spun the ruling as a victory, with the plaintiffs celebrating the chance for future compensation for athletes.

"The court's decision is a victory for all current and former student-athletes who are seeking compensation on a going forward basis," said the players' lead attorney, Michael Hausfeld, in a statement. "While we are disappointed that the court did not permit the athletes to seek past damages as a group, we are nevertheless hopeful that the court's decision will cause the NCAA to reconsider its business practices." 

The NCAA, meanwhile, praised the court for concluding that a class action suit for past damages would be "completely unmanageable and unprecedented."

"We have long maintained that the plaintiffs in this matter are wrong on the facts and wrong on the law," said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, in a statement on the NCAA's website. "This ruling is one step closer to validating that position."

Advocates for college athletes, such as the National College Players Association, have been pushing the NCAA to lift its ban on compensating student-athletes beyond scholarships. According to a Sept. 2011 report from the association, top-tier college athletes would be worth more than $100,000 if they were allowed access to a fair market, as professionals are.  

High school athletes would be wise to pay attention to future developments in this case, as the fate of the collegiate athletic landscape could hang in the balance.

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