Athletes score their biggest victory

Officially, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken penned the 99 pages that turned the tide on the NCAA, ruling that the college sports governing body has been violating antitrust laws.

But really, the text was written off the indelible images of Christian Laettner reacting after Duke beat Kentucky and Vince Young scrambling into the end zone to lead Texas past USC.

This past football season, Auburn scripted a few words, and Mercer hoops added a line or two in March, as well.

The only group that had the power to actually move the mountain that is the NCAA wrote this ruling: The athletes.

It took Ed O'Bannon to lead a charge that already has changed and will continue to change the face of college sports as we know it.

"I'm excited and trying to keep it all together," O'Bannon said. "When we decided to take on this case [in 2009], we knew it would be a marathon, that it would get people talking -- and that hopefully talk would spark change. And here we are."

There are nuances that will cloud and confuse the issue. For example, the ruling applies only to a player's name, image and likeness (NIL). If, in other words, schools don't try to profit off of an athlete's NIL, there would be limited compensation beyond a cost of attendance scholarship, and that is certainly an NCAA "win."

And the NCAA will likely appeal the ruling, which means this will all have the feel of the last 30 seconds of a tied basketball game. Instead of shuffling from one free throw line to the next in boredom, we will march from one courtroom to the next.

All of that, plus a 99-page ruling written by a federal judge, which makes the NCAA rulebook read like "Dick and Jane," threatens to numb us to the significance of it all.

But make no mistake: This is significant, historically significant, because athletes are finally pushing back.

To use a sports analogy: Athletes 1, NCAA 0.

Take the O'Bannon lawsuit and mix it with Northwestern football players' attempt to unionize and what you've got brewing here is nothing shy of an insurrection bordering on a coup.

The dirty little truth that the suits in Indianapolis don't want anyone to know is that they don't hold the ultimate trump card in all of this.

Neither do the million-dollar coaches, nor the Oz-like commissioners, nor the paper-pushing athletic directors.

No, the real power brokers are the athletes. Without them, what have we got? Glorified intramural games in really nice stadiums and arenas.

It's just that, for years, the athletes have moved along like Happy, Dopey and Sneezy , humming "Hi ho, hi ho," to themselves without realizing what was going on around them, or, if realizing it, unsure what to do about it.

They received a free education in return for their athletic endeavors, and that seemed like a pretty good trade. And truthfully, it's not a bad one. There are plenty of people in this country who would exchange a nifty crossover for a chance to pursue a bachelor's degree free of charge.

But then the money got silly and then it got stupid silly. Ba-ba-ba-billions of dollars in the form of television contracts poured in, and ma-ma-ma millions of dollars flowed out to coaches and schools and conferences, and, of course, the NCAA coffers.

And there were the athletes, the poster boys for it all, their smiling faces and athletic feats serving as free marketing to make all of those billions and millions.

What did they get in exchange? Well, an NCAA violation if they sipped a $4 milkshake off the books.

I believe the kids today have a term for that: WT...?

Although her language was a bit more flowery, Wilken agreed. She found the NCAA's historical account of its commitment to amateurism "unpersuasive." In fact, she found the record "reveals that the NCAA has revised its rules governing student-athlete compensation numerous times over the years, sometimes in significant and contradictory ways."

Unpersuasive? Contradictory? The NCAA? Wilken's ruling puts legal weight behind what most of the public has long been convinced of: The NCAA's model of amateurism is a sham.

The NCAA could have done something about this a long time ago, at the very least when O'Bannon first brought about this lawsuit. Instead, it did what it has always done and puffed out its chest, empowered by years of Teflon protection, and changed not one iota. It clung to its idealistic concept of amateurism, failing to realize that the times had changed significantly.

Rather than look to the Olympics as a model of survival amid a changing sports landscape, college sports looked into its ostrich hole and did nothing, hoping maybe no one would notice the complete imbalance of it all.

Far more significant empires have been felled by the devils of greed and arrogance.

Now that will be the NCAA's undoing, as well. It kept pushing and profiting until, finally, someone pushed back.

And the ones doing the pushing are the most powerful ones of all: the athletes.