Former UCLA star testifies in lawsuit over athlete pay

OAKLAND Calif. Mon Jun 9, 2014 2:56pm EDT

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OAKLAND Calif. (Reuters) - A former college basketball star testified on Monday he was an athlete masquerading as a student in a case that seeks to reshape traditional notions of sports amateurism in the United States.

Edward O'Bannon, who won a national championship with UCLA in 1995, is among over twenty current and former college athletes who have accused the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) of selling their names and likenesses to broadcasters without compensating them, in violation of antitrust laws.

He was the first witness to testify at trial on Monday in an Oakland, California federal court.

The athletes' lawsuit, filed in 2009, takes on the highly lucrative business of college athletics, where universities reap billions of dollars from men's football and basketball, but players are not allowed to profit. The NCAA argues that it promotes amateurism and that the revenue from big money sports supports a wide range of college athletics and benefits for players.    

Student-athletes are increasingly trying to claim more of those revenues and demanding to be treated more like employees. In April, football players at Northwestern University became the first U.S. student athletes to vote on whether to unionize.

O'Bannon said he usually spent about 40-45 hours per week on basketball activities, and "maybe about 12 hours" on academics.

"I was there to play basketball. School work wasn't much of a priority for me," O'Bannon said, adding: "I was an athlete masquerading as a student."

Under cross examination from NCAA attorney Glenn Pomerantz, O'Bannon acknowledged that he could have spent more time on academics, but chose not to. Pomerantz also asked O'Bannon if high school athletes or little league baseball players should be paid if their games are televised.

"Yes absolutely, if they're generating revenue," O'Bannon said. 

Besides O'Bannon, other named plaintiffs include legendary basketball players Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell. Trial is expected to last about three weeks in an Oakland, Calif. Federal court, and the athletes are seeking a court order to force the NCAA to change its business model, not monetary damages.

In a separate announcement on Monday, the NCAA said it has settled claims brought by players over likenesses sold to videogame maker Electronic Arts Inc for $20 million.

The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is In Re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litigation, 09-1967.

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