March Madness is headed to its April apex — the Final Four — this weekend. As it does every spring, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is generating tremendous excitement and money. And this year, more than ever, it's generating debate about whether some of the loot should go to the players.
That debate is on its way to a courtroom, thanks in large part to a player who once dominated March Madness, before disappearing from the basketball landscape — former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon.
His performance in the Bruins' 1995 championship victory over Arkansas helped make O'Bannon a first-round NBA draft choice. And he had visions of a lengthy, all-star career.
Reflecting On A Career
That all-star career didn't pan out — O'Bannon lasted two years in the NBA and then spent eight vagabond seasons playing in Europe. A few years ago, he took a job selling cars at a Toyota dealership in suburban Las Vegas with no regrets.
This week, the 37-year-old O'Bannon hit the treadmill as he does every day at a health club in Henderson, Nev.
"Look, if I continue to dwell on the fact that I'm not in the NBA, life is going to pass me by," he says. "My wife's going to leave me. My kids are going to be upset, and then I'm gonna really be screwed."
So basketball became a memory — until the day he saw a video game of the 1995 championship. There were no names on the jerseys, but unmistakably, it was O'Bannon and his UCLA teammates.
"It went from being flattered that I was on the video game to, you know, somebody's getting paid. I know I wasn't," O'Bannon says. "So, I just kind of thought at that particular time something needed to be done."
Last May, O'Bannon became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against game maker Electronic Arts and the NCAA. Recently, a judge refused the NCAA's request to dismiss the case. The lawsuit is asking for compensation for any use of player images in what attorney Jon King calls an exploding world of technology — video games, DVDs, on-demand streaming of games, photo Web sites.
King contends the NCAA has exploited athletes by not allowing them to cash in, while the organization collects what's estimated at more than $4 billion from licensing deals.
"One of its roles is to protect against excess commercialization and commercial exploitation," King says. "And it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that it has not prevented — it in fact has enabled — excess commercialization."
The NCAA says it is ready to argue that point and every other point in court — especially the assertion that it prevents college athletes from profiting off their likeness.
"They're free to do whatever they want with their likeness once their eligibility is exhausted and several do," says Bob Williams, an NCAA spokesman.
Williams frequently uses the terms "misconception" and "misunderstanding" in his response to critics of the NCAA. In about a year, it could be up to a jury to decide if this is all misunderstanding or if Ed O'Bannon and potentially thousands of other athletes understand the issue perfectly well and deserve a piece of a very large pie.