O’Bannon Declares Victory as Northwestern Seeks Union Over NCAA

Ed O’Bannon, the former college basketball player who is suing the National Collegiate Athletic Association, declared victory after members of the Northwestern University football team moved to create the first athlete-specific union in history.

“I feel like I’ve already won,” O’Bannon said in a telephone interview. “It was never about collecting money. It was about bringing awareness, causing conversation. It was about stimulating thoughts to this travesty that’s going on at the college level. People are talking. We’ve won.”

The newly formed College Athletes Players Association, or CAPA, submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board asserting that NCAA rules are unjust.

The NCAA, the college sports governing body that doesn’t permit athletes to be paid, generates more than $16 billion in television contracts from college football and basketball, sports that also drive sales of tickets, sponsorships and merchandise.

“I love that they’re conscious of their surroundings and conscious of the money that’s being made,” O’Bannon said of the Northwestern players, most of whom probably won’t be in college when their case is decided. “The players, they’re in a unique position in that they make a lot of money for a lot of people, including their respective universities, but don’t have a voice.”

The petition made by Northwestern players was backed by the United Steelworkers union, which will pay the association’s legal fees. The NLRB has received the petition, spokesman Gregory King said in an e-mail.


“People seem to think that athletes are these faceless, nameless, voiceless, muscle-bound dolts who don’t have brains,” O’Bannon said. “The fact that they are organizing themselves and coming together and are standing up for themselves is, in my opinion, a beautiful thing.”

O’Bannon, who played at UCLA, sued the NCAA and its licensing company five years ago, alleging that they agreed to block him and other former college athletes from getting paid for the use of their likeness in Electronic Arts Inc. sports video games after they left school.

The second-largest U.S. video-game publisher settled, agreeing to pay athletes $40 million, leaving the NCAA as the lone defendant.

Northwestern senior quarterback and co-captain Kain Colter during a conference call yesterday said college players need representation similar to professional leagues such as the National Basketball Association and National Football League.

“The system resembles a dictatorship where the NCAA mandates rules and regulations that players must abide by without any input or negotiation,” Colter said.

Benefiting Others

Colter then read a statement on behalf of his teammates, who, like O’Bannon, say their action is intended to benefit those who follow.

“To remain silent while players are denied justice is to be complicit in inflicting injustice on future generations of college athletes,” he said.

The association’s goals include guaranteed coverage for sports-related medical expenses for current and former athletes and compensation for sponsorships. The group also plans to establish a trust fund to help former players complete their degrees and push for an increase in athletic scholarships.

Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer, said in a statement the athletes’ attempt to unionize “undermines the purpose of college: an education.”

“Student-athletes are not employees, and their participation in college sports is voluntary,” Remy said. “We stand for all student-athletes, not just those the unions want to professionalize.”

Inevitable Challenge

James Quinn, a senior partner at New York-based Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, in a telephone interview said a player-backed challenge was inevitable in light of the litigations against the NCAA.

“At some point, with all the money around, surely as night follows day, the folks who are actually producing all that revenue are going to say, ‘We should have some share of it,’” he said.

For the NLRB to consider a petition for unionization, 30 percent of the group’s members must sign union cards. Colter said an “overwhelming majority” of his teammates offered their signatures.

Jim Phillips, Northwestern vice president for athletics and recreation, in a statement said the university is “proud” of its students, though it disagreed with their tactics.

“Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world,” Phillips said. “Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.”

School’s Response

Phillips added that while the issues raised by the group “deserve further consideration,” the school did not consider its student-athletes as employees, and did not believe collective bargaining was the appropriate method to address those concerns.

O’Bannon’s lawsuit prompted the NCAA to say last year that it wouldn’t renew its contract with the video-game manufacturer because of litigation. EA in September said it settled claims.

In November U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, in Oakland, California, granted class-action status to thousands of current and former student athletes, including O’Bannon, who are asking the court to order the NCAA not to block them from entering into licensing deals to get paid when they appear in game footage, television broadcasts or video games.

“People are educating themselves, men and women are standing up,” O’Bannon said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

The case is In re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litigation, 09-cv-01967, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland). The case is {BBLS DD X1Q6L576JEO2}.

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