In 2009, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon slapped the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the Collegiate Licensing Company and video game maker Electronic Arts Sports (EAS) with a lawsuit.
He accused the organizations of profiting from the images of student athletes without paying them or asking their permission.
O’Bannon, who grew up in South Los Angeles, became the main plaintiff in the class action, anti-trust lawsuit filed on behalf of NCAA Division 1 men’s football and basketball players after he discovered EAS used his own likeness in the video game “NCAA Basketball ’09.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be on a video game? I was ecstatic about it, to be honest. Initially,” O’Bannon told CNN, recalling the first time he came across his image in the game at a friend’s house.
“Then, he told me he paid X amount of dollars for it,” said Bannon. “I didn’t get a penny. That’s when it hit me.”
On Sept. 30, in an effort to bring about some equity to the college sports economy and address what California lawmakers are calling “the civil rights issue of today,” Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 206, also called the Fair Pay to Play Act.
The governor and some legislators say, over the years, NCAA rules that bar student athletes from earning money from their personas or performances have led to the exploitation of California college players like O’Bannon.
Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) introduced the legislation. It allows college student athletes in California to receive compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness in marketing activities like shoe endorsements, jersey licensing, ticket sales or other for-profit ventures that benefit them.
Lawmakers in New York and South Carolina are pushing similar legislations but California is the first state in the country to pass a law addressing the NCAA student athlete rules.
“This puts California in the vanguard of leadership as it relates to rebalancing the power in the NCAA,” Newsom said in a telephone interview. “Rebalancing the power now with student athletes on par with institutions. That balance of power has been perverted over the course of many, many years by the extraordinary amount of money in this system.”
The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.
In 1995, O’Bannon led the UCLA Bruins to a NCAA championship victory over the University of Arkansas Razorbacks in the March Madness final.
In that game, the power forward – now a well-known advocate for rolling back the NCAA’s strict rules regarding student athletes – scored 30 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. He was named the NCAA’s ‘Most Outstanding Player.’
After college, the power forward played two seasons in the NBA and eight more in Europe and South America, but he never became a high profile, high-earning professional basketball player.
By the mid 2000s, he was back in the U.S., selling cars at a Las Vegas auto dealership.
Although O’Bannon won the lawsuit in 2014 and $40 million in fees, plus $5,000 payments to the plaintiffs for each year they played college sports, the NCAA appealed that decision. A U.S. district court upheld the ruling against the NCAA in 2015, but reversed the order to compensate the athletes whose likenesses were used in the video game.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld those decisions.
Sen. Skinner uses the story of UCLA gymnastics star Katelyn Michelle Ohashi to illustrate the unfairness of the NCAA student athlete policy.
A video posted on YouTube of Ohashi doing a popular floor exercise routine in January this year generated 64 million views, but the Bruins star couldn’t make a penny from it because of NCAA rules.
“For decades, college sports have generated billions for all involved except the very people most responsible for creating the wealth. That’s wrong,” Skinner said.
There was broad bipartisan support in the Legislature for SB 206. But there was also strong opposition to the bill.
The University of California system, California State University schools, Stanford and the University of Southern California all opposed the bill, saying they feared it would increase costs to ensure compliance with the law and lead to fines or even expulsion from the NCAA.
The NCAA and the Pacific 12 Conference, the western collegiate athletic league commonly called the PAC-12, also opposed the bill.