08/08/2014 11:40 EDT | Updated 10/08/2014 05:59 EDT

US judge rules against college sports body in antitrust case over athletes' rights to images

A federal judge ruled in a landmark decision that collegiate football and basketball players can sell the rights to their names and likenesses, opening the way to amateur athletes getting some payouts from the booming American college sports industry once their university careers are over.

The judge ruled Friday in favour of former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and 19 others in a lawsuit that challenged the powerful NCAA's regulation of college athletics on antitrust grounds. Plaintiffs argued college sports' amateurism rules are anti-competitive and allow the National Collegiate Athletic Association to operate as an illegal cartel.

In a partial victory for the NCAA, though, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken said the sports body could set a cap on the money paid to athletes, as long as it allows at least $5,000 a year for big school football and basketball players.

The NCAA and big sports schools have been under enormous pressure to reform recently, facing legal attacks on several fronts that claim their amateur system exploits student-athletes who can't focus on their education and risk lasting physical damage to their bodies while not getting fair compensation with scholarships alone.

Wilken was not asked to rule on the fairness of a system that critics say allows sports to dominate the American college campus while paying everyone but the student-athletes themselves. Instead, the case was centred on federal antitrust law and whether the prohibition against paying players promotes the game of college football and does not restrain competition in the marketplace.

The case was essentially a battle over hundreds of millions of dollars in television contracts that attorneys for the plaintiffs said should be shared with the athletes themselves.

Elite student-athletes could benefit more from those massive TV contracts after a vote Thursday by the NCAA Board of Directors to approve a historic package of changes that allow the five richest sports conferences to make their own rules. That is expected to allow them to spend millions of dollars more on athletes — either in the form of new stipends or bigger scholarships. Direct payments were not part of the discussion, and critics said the change would simply make the richest sports programs richer by making it easier for them to recruit the best athletes.

Last week, the NCAA agreed to settle a class-action head injury lawsuit by creating a $70 million fund to diagnose thousands of current and former athletes to determine if they suffered brain trauma while playing contact sports. It also agreed to implement a policy describing how all teams must treat players who received head blows. Critics have accused the NCAA of giving too much discretion to hundreds of individual schools about when athletes can go back into games, putting them at risk.

Still pending is a decision by the National Labor Relations Board on whether Northwestern University football players can form what would be the first union for college athletes in U.S. history.

On Friday, attorneys for the NCAA said moving away from the concept of amateurism would drive spectators away from college sports and would upset the competitive balance among schools and conferences. They said some of the relief sought by the plaintiffs would allow for third parties to pay players and that universities would lose control of their programs.

Several players testified during the trial that they viewed playing sports as their main occupation in college, saying the many hours they had to devote to the sport made it difficult — if not impossible — to function like regular students.

O'Bannon portrayed himself as a dedicated athlete who would stay after games to work on his shot if needed, but not much of a student. He said his job at UCLA was to play basketball and took up so much time that just making it to class was difficult.

"I was an athlete masquerading as a student," said O'Bannon, star of the 1995 UCLA team that won the national title. "I was there strictly to play basketball. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play."

But witnesses called by the NCAA during the trial spoke of the education provided athletes as payment for their services and said the college model has functioned well for more than a century. They contended that paying players could force schools to cut minor sports funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars taken in by big time athletics.

Rutgers law professor Michael Carrier, a specialist in antitrust and intellectual property law, said the outcome of Friday's ruling might not be scary at all for schools because the money may not be huge and will be paid only after a player's career is over.

"They're just giving the plaintiffs a little piece of the money many people would view them as entitled to," Carrier said. "I don't think it will put college athletics out of existence."