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Ex-NCAA athletes drop claim for money damages in image-use lawsuit

Ex-National Collegiate Athletic Association players suing to gain rights to share in $800 million of annual broadcast revenue said they won’t seek damages and that settlement talks have failed.

Lawyers for ex-University of California at Los Angeles basketball star Ed O’Bannon and other plaintiffs previously said they’d ask a jury to award individual ex-athletes damages at trial from the NCAA for allegedly conspiring to prevent them from being paid for the use of their names and images. That was after a judge denied their request to seek financial penalties from the NCAA for a group of thousands of players. NCAA attorneys said they were “troubled” by the last-minute decision to drop damage claims, according to a court filing.

As a result, a trial scheduled for June 9 may focus solely on whether the NCAA should be blocked by a court order from preventing current and former athletes from negotiating their own licensing deals with media companies and others that broadcast or sell footage of games.

All but one of the 18 players in the case, who include ex-Boston Celtics star center Bill Russell, “have instructed counsel that they will not be pursuing individual damages claims against the NCAA,” Michael Hausfeld, a lawyer for the athletes, said in a court filing. “The players do not intend to proceed before a jury.”

A proposed verdict form Hausfeld filed earlier asked for damages for Russell, O’Bannon and 16 other players. The later filing didn’t say which player broke ranks.

Hausfeld didn’t immediately respond to a message left at his office seeking comment on the filing.

“The NCAA vigorously objects to the plaintiffs’ apparent last ditch effort to change course in this litigation,” NCAA lawyer Carolyn Luedtke said in a filing late Wednesday.

The players and the NCAA said in court papers filed on Thursday that settlement talks in the case have been unsuccessful and further negotiations “are not likely to be productive.”

The case is In Re NCAA Student-Athlete Name and Likeness Licensing Litigation, 09-01967, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Oakland).

The O’Bannon case is part of a movement by current and former college athletes to secure compensation, greater medical benefits and control over their images in a system that considers them amateurs. The athletes aren’t paid despite generating sponsorship, ticket and merchandise revenue in addition to that from television contracts.

The NCAA faces antitrust lawsuits over its scholarships, while the National Labor Relations Board said Northwestern University’s football team has the right to form college sports’ first labor union, a decision that could change the $16 billion business of top-level university athletics.

Fox Broadcasting Co., ABC Inc. and other broadcasters said giving individuals licensing rights would lead to “chaos” and calls “into question the telecasting of amateur sports altogether” because any athlete of any age — from Little League to high school — might claim a right to be compensated, according to a May 2 court filing.

The judge presiding over the case said the First Amendment doesn’t bar student-athletes from selling group licenses to use their names, images, and likenesses in live or recorded broadcasts. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken said last month she would decide whether to grant the court order without a jury.

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