Eric Draper / AP
Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Ed O’Bannon felt like the bad guy.
When a friend called him last year and joked O’Bannon was at fault for a stop in production of popular college-sports video games, the star forward on UCLA’s 1995 national championship basketball team knew his friend wasn’t the lone person to share that opinion.
O’Bannon, a Henderson resident, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA, claiming the governing body of college sports should compensate athletes for selling their images and likenesses used in video games such as “NCAA Football 13.”
Sports video games are a billion-dollar industry, but video game maker EA Sports and the NCAA were the lone ones to profit, not the athletes whose images were being used. In July 2013, the NCAA parted ways with EA Sports because of the lawsuit, saying participating in the game wasn’t in the best interest of the NCAA.
On Friday, after more than five years in the courts system, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of O’Bannon to open the door for future college football and basketball players to earn up to $5,000 annually for use of their likenesses in video games.
“I want to be clear on a few things. I didn’t set out to be the bad guy, and we didn’t bankrupt college athletics,” O’Bannon said Saturday during a media gathering at Findlay Toyota, where he works in marketing.
“That was a big deal. That was a mainstay for us. Saturdays are still going to be special. Our tournaments in March will still have madness.”
The ruling removes limits on the money college athletes can receive for use of their names, images and likenesses. Those restrictions violated antitrust law, Wilken wrote in a 99-page decision.
O’Bannon agreed to be the face of the lawsuit after seeing his image used in a video game by the NCAA without his authorization. O’Bannon was the MVP of UCLA’s national championship team in the mid-1990s, but his likeness was still being used more than a decade later.
In "NCAA Basketball 09," O’Bannon’s Bruins are one of the “classic teams,” and the character “PF31” resembles the 6-foot-8, left-hand-shooting O’Bannon.
He was recruited to challenge the NCAA by Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe executive who signed Michael Jordan to his first deal with Nike. But O’Bannon didn’t need to be sold — this quickly became his passion.
“This has been a long five-plus years. Looking back on this lawsuit, there have been a lot twists, a lot turns, a lot of peaks, a lot of valleys, a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “Through it all, I never wanted to be the bad guy. I wanted to help the best way I could the college athlete.”
O’Bannon and other former players won’t be compensated because of the ruling, but players of a new generation will be in line to receive up to $5,000 annually once they leave school. So, after a four-year college career, some athletes could leave with $20,000. The money would be put in a trust.
The NCAA, which has said it’s willing to take the case to the Supreme Court, is expected to appeal the ruling. There’s no telling when players will be compensated or when video games will again be made.
“I woke up this morning and my bank account is still the same,” O’Bannon said. “I didn’t make a dime off this. We did this strictly and solely for the betterment of the college athletes. For that, I am happy.”
It’s considered a landmark ruling for the future of college athletics. Countless players could benefit, which O’Bannon became emotional about when addressing the news media. It was never about him.
“The kids who are going to benefit from this are kids who don’t even know what we did today,” Vaccaro told ESPN. “It may only be $5,000, but it’s $5,000 more than they get now. The future generation will be the benefactor of all this. There are now new ground rules in college sports.”
O’Bannon’s wife, Rosa, and youngest son, Ed Jr., accompanied him to the event. When he become emotional talking about the process, needing to stop to wipe away tears on multiple occasions, they also teared up.
It had been a stressful five years. So stressful that O’Bannon, who is reserved and soft-spoken, couldn’t hold back his emotions.
“When you do this and you know there is monetary gain, there are certain pressures that you endure and feel,” he said. “You do everything you can to hold your head up and see it through. You hope that it is appreciated eventually. I don’t ask, don’t want to be recognized. And I hate myself for sitting here (crying).”