By, Sara Ganim (CNN)
It was fourth and long and the clock was ticking down to half-time when the quarterback launched the Hail Mary pass. Tyrone Prothro charged down the field, reached around his opponent’s head and caught the football, tumbling into the end zone to score for Alabama, still wrapped around the defender.
The amazing catch propelled Prothro to stardom and, for a few weeks, the all-star receiver was one of the most talked about athletes in the world of college sports. The play was shown over and over again on television.
That was September 10, 2005. Less than a month later, he shattered his leg, and with it, his NFL prospects. Prothro graduated from the University of Alabama but never made a cent from the thing he studied the most — playing football.
“(He) had something that was monetized on TV, played over and over again,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the former Nike executive who practically invented the branding of athletes and has since become an advocate for paying them.
While Alabama and the SEC cashed in on the astonishing play that was to win Best Play of the year in the 2006 ESPYs, Prothro struggled. He spent years fruitlessly trying to land a coaching job while working as a bank teller and then in pest control.
Hardly the life he’d imagined on that Saturday in September 2005.
That’s the reality for many college athletes — one that Prothro and more than a dozen other athletes are trying to change.
Taking it to court
They are all part of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, which went to trial on Monday.
The suit seeks to end the NCAA’s control over the rights to college athletes’ names, images and likenesses.
As it stands now, when they commit to a university, players are required to sign a waiver that relinquishes their right to their own likenesses in every form.
That means they can’t make money off their television appearances, their jerseys, or in any other way.
Their universities get any revenues from selling sports paraphernalia or other material related to the players.
The O’Bannon suit alleges the waivers the athletes are required to sign are illegal, and they want players to be able to collectively negotiate the terms of their likenesses. Basically, they want a share of those profits.
“They’ve created a world where players can’t negotiate,” said Michael McCann, a sports-law attorney at the University of New Hampshire.
A win for O’Bannon could change college sports drastically. The NCAA might have to restructure its amateur model, even start paying college athletes.
Judge Claudia Wilken, who will decide the suit, has so far given the plaintiffs almost everything they’ve asked for, including the ability to amend and modify their lawsuit to give them a better chance at winning.
That may be no indication of how she’ll rule at the end of the trial, which began Monday in federal court in Oakland, California. But experts in college sports and anti-trust law are predicting O’Bannon will prevail.
Legal appeals will likely delay a final outcome for years, but the O’Bannon suit is still in a position to be the first major NCAA reform effort to take hold.
The NCAA did not respond to repeated requests for comment over several days on O’Bannon’s suit and the broader issues.
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