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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Seeds for Ed O'Bannon's antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA that is playing out in a California federal courtroom were planted five years ago in Ohio.
They involved a former college baseball player from Vermilion, his attorney in Cleveland, and their favorable ruling from a judge in Erie County.
O'Bannon's class-action suit is drawing national attention in its second week at trial because of possible ramifications that could alter the traditional system of college sports.
Less seemed at stake in February 2009, when Erie County Common Pleas Judge Tygh Tone ruled in favor of Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver in the Ohio native's lawsuit against the NCAA regarding its "agent rule."
Tone's ruling, however, provided a partial legal road map for O'Bannon's lawyers, who filed their lawsuit five months later after reviewing that case and others and consulting with Oliver's attorney, Richard G. Johnson of Cleveland.
Oliver became the first student-athlete to defeat the NCAA in court when Tone ruled that the NCAA rule allowing players to hire a lawyer but prohibiting them from negotiating a contract is impossible to enforce and allows for the player to be exploited.
Soon after the court ruling, Johnson met in spring 2009 with Jon King, who at the time was one of the lawyers in the Washington firm of Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney for O'Bannon.
"King and I talked at length," Johnson said. "We talked about the dynamics of these cases and different theories. He wanted access to information, and I was only too happy to give it to him.
"All of our briefs and depositions were filed with the court, so they could have gone to the courthouse and picked it up. But we had tens of thousands of pages of stuff. I was able to concisely give them the stuff that they needed and explain to them how they could use it."
King told CBSSports.com this month that after reviewing the Oliver case and others in 2009, he felt "there are some voices out there we can build on if we set things up in the right way."
O'Bannon sued the NCAA in July 2009 over the commercial use of Division I football and men's basketball players' names, images and likenesses -- a policy issue differing from the Oliver case, which centered on the constitutional right to counsel.
"What is similar in the two cases is: What rights do these kids have by this entity called the NCAA that makes a ton of money off of them?" Johnson said. "What's their status? Who gets to decide? Those are all themes that we created and that we won on."
Johnson said the pivotal point in Oliver's victory was when the Ohio court agreed with the plaintiff's argument that student-athletes had legal standing as third-party beneficiaries to the NCAA's contracts.
"So not only did we win, but how we won -- the legal theory that we used to win -- essentially emancipated all college athletes," Johnson said. "That was the value Hausfeld and King saw in our case. They saw that we opened a door to a way to challenge the unfairness."
Oliver had been suspended in 2008 because the NCAA said two years earlier advisers he hired listened in on contract negotiations after he was drafted by the Minnesota Twins. He was subsequently reinstated at Oklahoma State by the Ohio court.
The NCAA appealed Tone's ruling. Oliver was later drafted by the Detroit Tigers and, desiring to move on with his life and career, agreed to a $750,000 settlement from the NCAA in October 2009. The settlement vacated the court's order barring the NCAA's agent rule, but a wave of litigation has since engulfed college sports' governing body, which is facing 25 pending legal actions.
Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney in one of those antitrust lawsuits, said in October 2009 that the Oliver case opened the door for student-athletes to challenge NCAA bylaws in court.
Johnson said he can't take credit for O'Bannon's suit, but is proud of Oliver's victory serving as a beacon for others.
"I personally believe that we helped give birth to everything that is happening," Johnson said.