After five years, hundreds of filings and countless twists and turns, the most anticipated lawsuit in college sports history goes to trial Monday in Oakland.

It's Ed O'Bannon vs. the NCAA, with the system at stake.

The former UCLA basketball star and dozens of other named plaintiffs in the antitrust case -- the list includes Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson -- are seeking to change the economics of college sports by allowing players to be compensated financially for the use of their name, image and likeness.

If O'Bannon wins, major college football and men's basketball players could have access to millions of dollars generated annually by the NCAA and its member schools from not only jersey sales but network television appearances.

But the O'Bannon case is just one of many facing the NCAA.

The governing body of college sports is under siege on several fronts for enforcing an antiquated system that, to cite one example, recently allowed Ohio State's athletic director to receive an $18,000 bonus after an OSU wrestler won the national title -- but the wrestler himself got nothing.

"We need to find the right answers for the 21st century," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "The NCAA has gotten so large and cumbersome that we have failed at efforts to evolve. ...

"I don't know what will happen in the cases. I think we have positions that are valid, but we also need to change."


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Despite the high-profile nature of the O'Bannon case, it's not the greatest threat to the system of amateurism that governs college sports. Nor, for that matter, is the much-publicized unionization movement at Northwestern.

The case that most worries college officials has received relatively little publicity and is just beginning to wind through the court system.

Filed in New Jersey by renowned sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler -- one of the named plaintiffs is former Cal tight end Bill Tyndall -- it seeks to completely overhaul the scholarship model by turning players into salaried employees in a free-market system.

That case will also play out in the Bay Area. Earlier this week, it was lumped together with another lawsuit seeking compensation. The combined suit will be overseen in Oakland by Judge Claudia Wilken, who also will preside over the O'Bannon case.

"We're frankly more focused on some other questions being raised: Are student-athletes employees ... (and) the lawsuits wondering whether we should be paying salaries," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said.

"To me, those are more fundamental threats to the collegiate model. I don't see the O'Bannon case rising to that level."

A recent move by the five major conferences to compensate athletes for the full cost of attendance -- the scholarship check doesn't cover everything -- could serve to defuse the legal threat. Individually or collectively, the compensation cases are years away from resolution.

So is unionization: The National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern players are employees pertains only to private schools -- the NLRB has no jurisdiction over state institutions.

And for all the drama that could unfold in Wilken's Oakland courtroom over the next three weeks -- NCAA president Mark Emmert is expected to take the stand -- the O'Bannon case could take months, even years to resolve.

Wilken, who has degrees from Stanford and Cal, is not expected to rule from the bench, and a written decision likely will take weeks. Based on her rulings in the case thus far, the NCAA is a significant underdog. A defeat would assuredly be followed by an appeal to the Ninth Circuit and, potentially, to the Supreme Court.

The plaintiffs are no longer pursuing damages. They want injunctive relief, which would free athletes to be compensated for participating in the televised football and basketball games that currently generate approximately $20 million per year for schools in the major conferences.

How would an O'Bannon victory change the landscape? Nobody seems to know.

Would every player in the major conferences have to negotiate his own deal with ESPN? Would the backup tight end earn the same as the star quarterback? And what of the California statute that bars participants in televised sporting events from being compensated? (Many other states have similar laws.)

That's all for Wilken -- and possibly the Ninth Circuit and the Supreme Court -- to decide. The plaintiffs, for now, are focused on removing the cap on what athletes can earn. What happens after the lid gets blown off, nobody knows.

O'Bannon
Ex-UCLA star basketball player heads lawsuit vs. NCAA.