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Court says college athletes can sell rights to their likenesses

Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and 19 others brought the landmark case against the NCAA. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

Eric Draper/AP/file 1995

Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon and 19 others brought the landmark case against the NCAA.

College football and basketball players could be in line for paydays worth thousands of dollars once they leave school after a landmark ruling Friday that may change the way the NCAA does business.

A federal judge ruled that the NCAA can’t stop players from selling the rights to their names, images, and likenesses, striking down NCAA regulations that prohibit them from getting anything other than scholarships and the cost of attendance at schools.

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US District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, Calif., ruled in favor of former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and 19 others in a lawsuit that challenged the NCAA’s regulation of college athletics on antitrust grounds. The injunction she issued allows players at big schools to have money generated by television contracts put into a trust fund to pay them when they leave.

In a partial victory for the NCAA, though, Wilken said the body that governs college athletics could set a cap on the money paid to athletes, as long as it allows at least $5,000 per athlete per year of competition. Individual schools could offer less money, she said, but only if they don’t unlawfully conspire to set those amounts.

That means FBS football players and Division 1 basketball players on rosters for four years could potentially get up to $20,000 when they leave school. Wilken said she set the $5,000 annual threshold to balance the NCAA’s fears about huge payments to players.

‘‘The NCAA’s witnesses stated that their concerns about student-athlete compensation would be minimized or negated if compensation was capped at a few thousand dollars per year,’’ Wilken wrote.

The NCAA said it disagreed with the decision, but was still reviewing it.

But Sonny Vaccaro, the former athletic shoe representative who recruited O’Bannon to launch the suit, said it was a huge win for college athletes yet to come.

‘‘The kids who are going to benefit from this are kids who don’t even know what we did today,’’ Vaccaro said. ‘‘It may only be $5,000 but it’s $5,000 more than they get now.’’

O’Bannon issued a statement calling the decision ‘‘a game-changer’’ and precisely what he was after when he joined the suit.

‘‘I just wanted to right a wrong,’’ O’Bannon said. ‘‘It is only fair that your own name, image, and likeness belong to you, regardless of your definition of amateurism. Judge Wilken’s ruling ensures that basic principle shall apply to all participants in college athletics.’’

The ruling comes after a five-year battle by O’Bannon and others on behalf of college athletes to receive a share of the billions of dollars generated by huge television contracts. O’Bannon, who was MVP of the 1995 UCLA national championship basketball team, said he signed on as lead plaintiff after seeing his image in a video game authorized by the NCAA for which he was not paid.

Any payments to athletes would not be immediate. The ruling said regulations on pay will not take effect until the start of the next FBS football and Division 1 basketball recruiting cycle.

As part of her ruling, Wilken rejected both the NCAA’s definition of amateurism and its justification for not paying players. But she did not prohibit the NCAA from enforcing all of its other regulations and said that some restrictions on paying players may still serve a limited purpose if they are necessary to maintain the popularity of the two sports.

‘‘The big picture is the NCAA lost the definition of amateurism it has been pushing for years,’’ said Michael Carrier, a Rutgers law professor.

During a three-week trial in June, several players testified that they viewed playing sports as their main occupation in college, saying the hours they had to devote made it difficult to function like regular students.

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