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Judge partially grants class-action status in Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against NCAA

The Ed O'Bannon plaintiffs weren't awarded full class-action status, but can still challenge the future of amateurism in the NCAA.

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Streeter Lecka

The Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA was partially certified as a class-action suit by California federal judge Claudia Wilken on Friday. Wilken denied the plaintiffs' bid to certify a class seeking financial damages against the NCAA, but did grant class-action status to challenge the NCAA's restrictions on what athletes may receive.

The ruling will allow the plaintiffs to challenge the current system of amateurism and could dramatically change scholarship rules going forward. In the ruling, Wilken wrote the plaintiffs were seeking certification to pursue an injunction barring the NCAA from prohibiting current and former student athletes from pursuing licensing deals for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Wilken wrote that by not granting certification, the group of current and former student athletes could be subject to continued antitrust harms.

Wilken denied the plaintiffs' bid for certification to seek monetary damages. She wrote the plaintiffs could not come up with a feasible way to determine which student athletes were harmed by NCAA restrictions. The use of player likenesses in video games was a major part of the attempt to certify, but Wilken said it would be extremely difficult to determine "which student-athletes were actually depicted in video games," according to USA Today.

One of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys, Michael Hausfield, was pleased with the judge's ruling. In a news release, via USA Today, Hausfield said, "The court's decision is a victory for all current and former student-athletes who are seeking compensation on a going forward basis. While we are disappointed that the court did not permit the athletes to seek past damages as a group, we are nevertheless hopeful that the court's decision will cause the NCAA to reconsider its business practices."

Although the latest ruling could dramatically change the future of the NCAA, the ruling is a partial victory for the NCAA, as it will not face monetary damages for previously alleged antitrust violations. Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer, said the ruling was one step closer to validating the organization's position that the plaintiffs were "wrong on the facts and wrong on the law."

"We are pleased that the Court correctly found that conducting a class-wide trial for claimed damages for student-athletes who played college football and men's basketball going back nearly a decade would be completely unmanageable and unprecedented," Remy said. "The plaintiffs in this case were seeking substantial damages based on erroneous theories for maintaining a class. The Court correctly removed these claims from this case."

The ruling wasn't a complete victory for the NCAA, however, and if the plaintiffs win their challenge against current NCAA restrictions, it could change the shape of college sports forever. The repercussions would be wide-ranging and would alter the foundation of college athletics. The NCAA built its empire by exploiting amateur athletes for revenues in television and elsewhere, so if it is required to share those revenues with the players, that model will be shattered. The very definition of "student-athlete" will be altered. The costs would extend beyond the NCAA down to the conferences, many of which hold lucrative television deals of their own.

A trial date is set for June 2014, but even with a concrete ruling from those proceedings, this could become an issue long-prolonged by appeals. The NCAA's viability and financial security could be at risk, and with such substantial stakes, the path to resolution likely will prove complicated.

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