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NCAA Ruling Heralds A New, And Murky, Era


The NCAA is preparing to appeal last week's ruling in the Ed O'Bannon case. O'Bannon is a former college basketball player who sued the NCAA and won. The decision opens the door for some men's basketball and football players to be compensated for the use of their names and likenesses. Media reports called it a landmark decision, heralding a change in the age-old concept of amateurism in college sports. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, the reality may not be as clear.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Let's first define landmark as it applies to the ruling U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken issued last Friday.

MICHAEL MCCANN: I think the decision is a landmark in the sense that a federal judge has rejected, to a large extent, the NCAA's arguments for amateurism.

GOLDMAN: But that rejection, sports legal analyst Michael McCann notes, is not all-encompassing. Yes, the judge says the NCAA prohibiting compensation to athletes is an antitrust violation, but she essentially capped compensation at $5,000 per athlete. She also upheld the NCAA's ban against college athletes making money off endorsements.

MCCANN: I think the practical impact is less of a landmark decision and is more modest.

GOLDMAN: Indeed, it didn't exactly reverberate through the University of Oregon football locker room where running back Byron Marshall says he had one quick conversation about the ruling.

BYRON MARSHALL: One of my teammates said something about players getting paid. But other than that, I didn't really pay too much attention to it.

GOLDMAN: Byron Marshall would qualify for compensation because he plays for a top football program - one of those covered under the ruling. But the judge says football and men's basketball players won't get money until 2016 when Marshall, a junior, is gone. So he spent the last week poring over his preseason playbook, rather than the judge's thick, 99-page decision.

MARSHALL: I mean, it's something cool to talk about I guess, but in reality, we're not getting paid. And if we do get paid, it's not going to be anytime soon or while any of us are still here playing. So it's just really not that relevant.

GOLDMAN: Leading up to Judge Wilken's decision, there was speculation the O'Bannon case could rock the NCAA to its foundation and potentially obliterate the concept of amateurism in college sport. None of that has happened. But has O'Bannon at least started the process of major change? Back to Michael McCann who runs the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. In the past week he's poured over Judge Wilken's decision twice. He notes what he calls a telling passage where Wilken says the best way to resolve disputes involving the NCAA is not through the courts.

MCCANN: From that lens, you could read the opinion and say she gave somewhat of a dismal view of antitrust law as a remedy.

GOLDMAN: At least one other such lawsuit is pending, brought by noted attorney Jeffrey Kessler. There's also a decision due by the National Labor Relations Board on whether football players at Northwestern can unionize. In total, McCann acknowledges yes, there is momentum for change. But McCann says if Wilken's somewhat careful decision says anything about the concept of amateurism in college sport, it's that it's not dead - not even dying.

MCCANN: Amateurism is an amorphous term, perspectives for which have changed over decades. I think it's a term that will evolve with changes that create more opportunities for compensation but not opportunities that would equate to professional sports in college.

GOLDMAN: Some reformers hold out hope for an end to amateurism. At the very least, the O'Bannon case moves the discussion forward toward a future reality in college sports that's still anybody's guess. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on