Comedian John Oliver—in discussing your antitrust lawsuit, O’Bannon v. NCAA—ripped the NCAA on HBO’s Last Week Tonight in March. But you stole the episode, saying that a fake video game, March Sadness 2015, “is every bit as fucked-up as the real thing.”
How’d that come about?
He had heard about the case and wanted to do a little segment on it. I was interested and intrigued. I saw a whole page of one-liners and wanted to do it so bad. I thought my grandmother wouldn’t like it, with all the f-bombs. But I had to do it. I went to a green room in a little studio here in town. Everyone enjoyed it; even my mom said, “I can’t believe you said that … but it was pretty funny.” John Oliver helped me show my sense of humor about it and show people that I’m not some militant.
What was it like giving testimony in the trial stage of your legal action in June 2014?
Surreal. I could see my wife, Rosa, sitting in the gallery, and I kept saying to myself, “This does not feel real … but I would pay to be here, looking at the N-C-two-A with both middle fingers up, saying, ‘Fuck you!’” That’s how I felt. When I was coming out of high school, they didn’t want my [UNLV] Rebels to run college basketball; because they hated Jerry Tarkanian; because they forced me to go to another school; because when I went to another school [UCLA] they pulled me into a dark room and interrogated me; because they have these rules saying athletes can’t get paid.
We couldn’t profit off our own likenesses, yet they could take my likeness and make all the money they wanted. I was 35 and at my friend’s house, and his kid is playing a video game and I see myself. … It kept stacking up to, “Fuck you guys, you can’t just keep doing this. Enough is enough.” I wanted them to know I was pissed.
What did you say to NCAA President Mark Emmert at that courthouse in Oakland?
We were face to face, shaking hands. [Emmert] said, “Hey, Ed, we admire what you’re doing. I think what you’re doing is a great thing. Some things do need to change. Some rules we have are archaic. We admire you for stepping up and doing this.” Whether it was sincere or not, I don’t think he had to say that.
On September 30, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that NCAA amateurism rules violate federal antitrust laws but struck down a plan to pay basketball and football players. What did you glean from that mixed message?
I’m still processing it. My lawyer will call me soon to talk about where we’re going next. What does it mean? Right now, not a whole lot. There still is the possibility of going to the Supreme Court; there is still the possibility of the judgment and the result changing. We are so far from resolution. I was happy when we got the initial judgment [in August 2014]. Then we went to the Appeals Court and I said to myself, “I’m going to grow numb to this.” I had to. I didn’t get into this to have my heart broken constantly. I bit the first time; not going to do it this time.
The lawsuit was filed more than six years ago, it could spend another year at the appellate level, and then the U.S. Supreme Court could take years to decide whether to hear it. Is it distressing to not even be at halftime?
When we started, my lawyers said, “Forget about it. Go about your life. We’ll be in the background. We won’t be done with this for 10 years, at least.” I remember thinking, “Yeah, right. OK.” And here we are. We aren’t at 10 years, but we’re getting close. It’s a marathon. I’m good with it. The NCAA thinks we’re going somewhere, from what I understand; all of their pretrial tactics were to wait us out. But this isn’t a money grab. I’m in this to help change rules. I’m going to be here, however long it takes. If we’re going to the Supreme Court [ultimately], my bags are packed.
How has this ordeal taken a toll on you?
I wanted to be a college coach. I went back to school to make myself available for that. Not only did all of those doors close, but so did television opportunities; they told me they didn’t want to be associated with me. It has trickled down to my kids, too, unfortunately.
Are you now much more cognizant that this is a lawyer’s world and all the rest of us just get to live in it?
No doubt. If I could go back I would be a lawyer. Wow. But, you know, you play with the cards you’re dealt. I don’t know that I would go back, if given an opportunity. I enjoy my life. I enjoy who I am. I am comfortable in my skin. If you stand up for what you believe in, if you show a passion for something, you can get things done.
Were you surprised last spring when Kingsford, the charcoal company, unveiled its #PayEd campaign in which you received a portion of every bag sold?
People don’t like change, especially when you’re trying to alter something that has been in existence for decades and has influenced people for decades. When you attempt to change a system, you get a lot of negative feedback. When a company like Kingsford jumps on your side and tells you you’re not alone in this, we support you … yes, it’s a beautiful thing.
After awhile, or at certain times, you do feel alone in this. It’s hard to keep marching forward. The constant negative feedback that I’d get—most of it is for the wrong reasons, as if I got into it for something completely different, if you think I’m in it to get rich … The other argument that kills me is, “Athletes get enough with a scholarship.” If you have your facts straight and you have a problem, that’s cool. If you don’t have the facts straight and you’re not talking to what’s going on, I don’t want to hear it. If you’re not trying to find out what’s really going on and you just want to be negative, I don’t need that.
And a lot of that stems from the inception of your Twitter account, which coincided with the Kingsford campaign?
I didn’t hear any negativity before I got on Twitter, not until Kingsford asked me. They opened up the account. I got on it. I would read the comments that came to me and, initially, [I said] whatever. But then I started answering them. You know what? Enough is enough. I’m going to answer some of these. Once I started doing it, it started digging at me. From then on, I stopped reading and answering, completely. At this point, I don’t read what is coming toward me. But I’m not stupid. I know what’s being said and the venom. It is vicious. But you know what? That’s life. You got to keep moving, keep marching on. Some of it is pretty funny, quite honestly.
Did you laugh when Kingsford depicted an artist’s rendering of you—on those special #PayEd bags—as twirling a basketball on the tip of tongs that you, a left-handed baller, are holding in your right hand?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I saw it. That’s true. They did miss that. Very, very good observation.