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Lawsuit Over College Athletes' Image Rights Finally Goes to Trial

A lawsuit over the usage of college athletes' images goes to trial beginning today, and the ramifications could reach far and wide if U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken rules in favor of the plaintiffs.

The suit, filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon back in 2009, seeks compensation for the usage of the names, images, and likenesses for former and current college athletes. Currently, college athletes are not permitted to benefit financially in any way from their likenesses, a policy which prohibits them from autographing memorabilia to be sold, appearing in paid advertisements, or receiving compensation for their appearances in video games and other products.

If Wilken rules in favor of O'Bannon and his co-plaintiffs, it could undermine the NCAA's concept of amateurism. And with the NCAA's current model under fire from many different directions—from the ongoing unionization efforts by Northwestern University football players to a class-action lawsuit accusing the NCAA of violating antitrust laws by capping student-athletes compensation at the value of a scholarship—a loss in the O'Bannon trial could add further fuel to the fire of the other challenges the association is currently facing.

Back in November, 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 are allowed to seek damages individually.)

The ruling opened the door for certain current and future NCAA athletes to collect revenues from the sale of television rights and video games featuring their likenesses. Lo and behold, the NCAA announced a $20 million settlement on Monday between EA Sports (a video game manufacturer), the Collegiate Licensing Corporation and a group of Division I men's basketball and Football Bowl Subdivision Players who attended certain institutions during the years the games were sold. The settlement could result in some current football or men's basketball players receiving a payment from a settlement fund, according to the NCAA's release.

"Consistent with the terms of a court-approved settlement, the NCAA will allow a blanket eligibility waiver for any currently enrolled student-athletes who receive funds connected with the settlement," said NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy in a statement. "In no event do we consider this settlement pay for athletics performance."

The O'Bannon trial will last up to three weeks, according to CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon, and Wilken has reportedly made clear that she hopes to have reached a written verdict before September. While a settlement remains possible, per Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann, it appears unlikely at the moment, as the NCAA hasn't opened those conversations with the O'Bannon team.

The NCAA attempted a last-ditch effort to delay the O'Bannon trial last month, per ESPN.com news reports, but Wilken ruled against the association, allowing the trial to proceed as scheduled.

"O'Bannon represents a watershed moment for the NCAA," Northeastern University School of Law professor Roger Abrams told ESPN.com's Lester Munson. "When combined with the Northwestern football team unionization effort, the case raises the question whether the NCAA must totally re-conceptualize its approach to regulating college athletics."

The underlying principles behind the O'Bannon suit has even caught the attention of Congress. Last month, three members of a U.S. Senate committee wrote a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert, urging him to protect student-athletes from "exploitation." They specifically brought up the Northwestern unionization effort, saying, "If the NCAA were accomplishing its mission of protecting student-athletes from exploitative practices those efforts would be unnecessary and likely unsuccessful."

According to Solomon, the O'Bannon plaintiffs filed proposed language on Friday for an injunction should Wilken declare them victorious at trial. In short, it would ban the NCAA and all member institutions from restricting student-athletes from being compensated for their names, likenesses, and images—the direct antithesis of the NCAA's current "amateurism" model.

"A player should be able to take what they did in college and kind of use that to, to their advantage, at least there should be something monetarily in the bank for them when they're done, they can fall back on," O'Bannon told CNN.com's Sara Ganim.

Beginning on Monday, we'll see if Wilken agrees. The future of collegiate sports hangs in the balance.

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