Unpredictable March Madness and the Law

This past weekend sixty-four teams played a total of fifty-two basketball games. Games are broadcast over four different television networks, and tens of millions of eyes remain glued to T.V. sets across the country — soaking up each buzzer-beating shot and Cinderella story. Just as unpredictable as the outcome of each tournament game is the result of a case pending against the NCAA, the entity that profits enormously from the nation’s fixation with March Madness.

O’Bannon v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), an antitrust class-action lawsuit, seeks to require the NCAA, and other enterprises who benefit from college-athletes’ images and popularity, to pay the players. This potential change in rules could shift these basketball and football stars from amateur to professional athletes. This change would significantly alter the landscape of collegiate sports.

Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star, along with other former college athletes, filed suit in July 2009. The original defendants included the NCAA, the Collegiate Licensing Company, and Electronic Arts (best known for EA Sports). The latter two settled for $40 million. Last August, federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of the players, holding that not paying athletes for the commercial use of their likeness and image was a violation of antitrust laws. The NCAA’s appeal is being heard this month by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

This is a divisive issue that has passionate proponents on both sides. There are people in favor of paying college athletes and many that are opposed. In either case, one thing is certain: this March, there is much more than tournament brackets on the line.

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