When I saw a news squib about the former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon filing a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA over the use of former athletes' images and likenesses in video games and TV ads, my first response was: I bet Sonny Vaccaro wishes he'd thought of this. Then I read the NYT article on the suit and it turns out he did:
O’Bannon said he was approached about becoming the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit about a month ago by Sonny Vaccaro and his wife and business partner, Pam. Vaccaro is a longtime sneaker executive who has thrived on tormenting the N.C.A.A. and fighting for the interests of young athletes.
Vaccaro said that Tuesday was “one of the happiest days of his life” and that he expected numerous former college football and basketball players to join the suit.
“I’m not looking to overthrow the government or the N.C.A.A.,” Vaccaro said. “I’m looking to do the right thing. They don’t own them and they’re going to have to explain it.”
O'Bannon's suit seems like a solid one to me: It's obscene that the NCAA doesn't have to share any of the estimated $4 billion it makes in licensing agreements with the former athletes whose talents provide the basis for those agreements. To take just one example, here's a screenshot from EA Sports' NCAA Basketball '09 game that shows two avatars who are obviously UNC's Ty Lawson and Duke's Greg Paulus; but these guys don't see any money from the videogame (and, while Lawson should be okay financially, I think Paulus is going to need the cash.)
Of course, I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not in a good position to judge if O'Bannon's suit has merit. But here's the problem for the NCAA. Even if O'Bannon's suit does fail, you can bet Vaccaro will come up with some other tactic to try to force the NCAA to make good by its former atheltes. He's a creative enough thinker and a relentless enough advocate that, given enough time, he's eventually going to find that silver bullet. With Vaccaro having made this his personal crusade, it's really seems more a question of when, not if, reform comes to big-time college athletics.