Monday, March 5, 2018

BrooklynFans Of Books: Ed O'Bannon Gets "Court Justice"

Court Justice: The Inside Story Of My Battle Against The NCAA
By Ed O'Bannon, With Michael McCann
Diversion Books

In 2009, Ed O’Bannon, who was a star on the 1995 NCAA Champion UCLA Bruins and a first-round NBA draft pick for the New Jersey Nets, thought he’d made peace with the NCAA’s exploitive system of “amateurism.”

College athletes generated huge profits, yet, despite training nearly full-time, forced to tailor coursework around sports, often pawns in corrupt investigations; they saw little from those riches other than revocable scholarships and miniscule chances of going pro.

Still, that was all in O’Bannon’s past…until he saw his friend's Mike's son Spencer playing the video game NCAA Basketball 09. As avatars of their college selves­—their likenesses, achievements, and playing styles—O’Bannon and his teammates were still making money for the NCAA.

O'Bannon writes, "It had actual Division I coaches and their names. And the courts, with light shining on the parquet, looked so real. Then there was the crowd with unique-looking fans, some with their faces painted, wearing their teams' colors and holding signs. Plus, the game nailed all the key sounds of basketball - the rhythm of dribbling, the chaos of sneaker squeaks, the suddenness of player yells, you name it. Graphically, the players really popped out, too. They looked so lifelike, with shadow effects and facial expressions. The animation of their movement was so fluid. If you were sitting several feet away from the TV you'd honestly think that you were watching a actual broadcast of a college basketball game.

"And if you closed your eyes, you would believe that an actual game was on. The crowd cheered at the right times with real crowd audio. The in-game "TV" analysis was spot on. Brad Nessler of CBS Sports provided the play-by-play while Erin Andrews of Fox  Sports offered updates. The clincher? Dick Vitale - the legendary Dick Vitale - provided commentary.

"'Get out of the way, baby, that was absolutely sensational!"

"That's what Dick Vitale said within a few minutes of Spencer starting up the game. 

"This was big time. This was so real.

"Spencer had 'us' - my digital UCLA teammates and me - play against the 1993-94 Arkansas Razorbacks, a precursor to the team we would beat the following year for the NCAA title.

"After a few minutes of watching, I was really getting into it. 'Hell yeah!...That's what I'm talking about!' I made these statements to no one in particular. I was, as EA likes to say, 'in the game.' I saved my loudest roar for when Spencer had Tyus Edney, my point guard, pass to me for a dunk over Corliss Williamson. 'Bring. It. ON!'

"At that point, I was thinking, Who doesn't want to be in a video game? I was going back to my time in the '90s and loving every second of it. But then Mike, kind of jokingly and with absolutely no ill intent, nudged me and said, 'Dude, can you believe I paid sixty bucks for this thing?'

"It may have been a side-of-the-mouth comment for Mike, but it got my mind racing. 'No man,' I responded. 'I can't. That price is steep.' Mike then gave the ol' buddy slap to my shoulder and said, 'It is kind of crazy you're not getting a penny from it, but that's life. What are you going to do, you know?' He gave a laugh and was back to watching the game.

"Sixty dollars. Every one of those games sells for sixty freaking dollars. God knows how many they've sold. It's crazy.

"I looked away from the TV and out a window. There was something uncomfortable happening, even as I heard digital Dick Vitale continue to say complimentary things about my avatar, this 'it.' That 'it' was meDamn.

"I drove back to my home in Henderson and told my wife, Rosa, about what I had seen, but I didn't make a big deal of it. I went back to work the next morning and put it out of my mind.

"A few weeks later, everything would change."

So, when asked to fight the system for players past, present, and future—and seeking no personal financial reward, but rather the chance to make college sports more fair—he agreed to be the face of what became a landmark class-action lawsuit.

Court Justice brings readers to the front lines of a critical battle in the long fight for players’ rights. From the basketball court to the court of law facing NCAA executives, athletic directors, and “expert” witnesses, O’Bannon breaks down history’s most important victory yet against the inequitable model of multi-billion-dollar “amateur” sports.

On the end of the trial, O'Bannon writes, "Glenn Pomerantz delivered the NCAA's closing case. Although, I was no fan of his, I thought he spoke with conviction and eloquence. The man is a talented attorney, no doubt. He  tried to reframe the case so that it worked for the NCAA's legal theories. The effort was there. So too was the passion.

"The result? Not so much.

"Pomerantz's core point was that whether amateurism rules are unfair wasn't for Judge (Claudia) Wilken to decide. Instead, he insisted, she should only consider whether consumers are hurt by those rules. he argued this point by claiming that consumers, not athletes or students, are the primary focus of antitrust law. With that in mind, Pomerantz asserted that amateurism has led to numerous TV broadcasts of college games and the overall popularity of college sports.

"This was not a crazy point. In fact, it wasn't wrong. Many college sports fans like the idea of college sports being separate from pro sports. I'm one of them actually.

"But as Judge Wilken later wrote, this defense didn't address our arguments. We weren't trying to turn college sports into pro sports. We were trying to protect the legal rights of college players and former players from having their identities commercially exploited by the NCAA and its business partners.

"Pomerantz's other contentions fell on deaf ears. He warned that schools would drop sports programs if I won. I don't think anyone was buying that fantasy anymore. The cloak on the NCAA's bogeyman had been lifted. If the trial had taken place in 1994 or 2004, Pomerantz might have enjoyed some traction with that argument. But in 2014? No way....

"Likewise, fears that opportunistic agents would soon be flooding college campuses to snatch up college athletes didn't sway Judge Wilken. As we talked about during the trial, if we won, college athletes would not negotiate with individual agents representing them. Instead, they would use a group license."

O'Bannon uses a good example of what he is seeking in terms of compensation when he writes of one of the best title games ever, "Look, I loved watching Butler play in the 2010 tournament. The championship game against Duke, where Butler lost by just two points, was an all-time classic. Gordon Hayward. Shelvin Mack. Coach Brad Stevens. These guys were for real. They represented the entire Butler community with such class.

"But let's say that Hayward and Mack - Butler's best players - had received compensation from the NCAA and CBS for the use of their names, images, and likenesses during the tournament (a tournament, by the way, in which the final game attracted twenty-four million television viewers, the highest number of viewers in ten years). I'm not talking about a paycheck for Hayward and Mack's labor. I'm talking about an amount that reflects the fair share of their identities being used to generate all that TV money.

"Would anyone have been less interested in watching Butler as the underdog?

"Would anyone who was going to watch the Butler-Duke championship game not have done so?

"Would fans really dismiss Hayward and Mack as 'poor man's NBa D Leaguers,'  whatever that means?

"And would those same fans complain, 'these guys aren't really students!' and then change the channel?

"If none of that sounds especially believable, then you, Judge Wilken, and I are all in agreement."

O'Bannon offers his unique perspective on today’s NCAA recruiting scandals. concludes Court Justice with 12 ideas that he feels can change college sports, including "Give college athletes a say on who becomes - and remains - NCAA president."

On the current president of the NCAA, O'Bannon writes, "During this decade, there has been no one more influential over college athletes than Mark Emmert. And yet under the NCAA's framework, he owes nothing to those athletes. He doesn't report to them. He doesn't talk with them. He doesn't have to worry about them in any shape or form. He only needs to please a board that, as currently configured, is essentially an echo chamber for university leaders."

Jeremy Schaap, ESPN journalist and New York Times bestselling author, writes of O'Bannon in the Foreword, “As the rights fees have skyrocketed, and the coaches' salaries, and the merchandising revenue, and as the schools have built luxury boxes and weight rooms and locker rooms that would make Caligula blush, it seems more than a little precious that virtually nothing has changed for those athletes whose talents make the whole circus possible....Like Curt Flood and Oscar Robertson, who paved the way for free agency in sports, Ed O’Bannon decided there was a principle at stake, that he wouldn't accept exploitation as the default state of being for college athletes, and former college athletes, even if the struggle would be costly. O’Bannon gave the movement to reform college sports a name and a face. More importantly, he gave it passion and purpose, animated by righteous indignation."

Court Justice is a seminal text on this evolving college athlete compensation issue, as was Joe Nocera's Indentured a couple years ago.

Progress is being made on fairly compensating the players, and those athletes can all thank that Ed O'Bannon for noticing a friend's son playing a video game.

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