July 14 (Reuters) - A federal judge ordered the NCAA to pay nearly $46 million in attorneys' fees and costs to lawyers for student-athletes including former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon in their class-action antitrust lawsuit against the organization.
The decision late Monday night by U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins came nearly a year after U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, California said the NCAA violated antitrust law by barring athletes from sharing in revenue from the use of their names and images in broadcasts and video games.
In awarding the athletes' lawyers 90 percent of the $50.9 million they sought, Cousins rejected the NCAA insistence that any award not exceed $9.1 million, and its subsequent "middle ground" suggestion to cut the fee request in half.
"This win against a behemoth of an institution like the NCAA could significantly change American college sports," wrote Cousins, who works in San Jose. "Plaintiffs did not succeed on every claim. But the time spent on the unsuccessful claims contributed to the decisive success by laying the groundwork for the eventual trial victory."
The NCAA declined to comment.
Cousins' decision is the latest defeat for the NCAA in litigation over its refusal to pay major college football and men's basketball players.
Critics say the prohibition shortchanges athletes, and often keeps them from taking paid jobs while in school. O'Bannon, who won an NCAA championship in 1995, testified to spending 40 to 45 hours a week on basketball.
On March 17, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the NCAA's appeal of Wilken's August ruling, which also said some athletes may deserve up to $5,000 a year in deferred payments. The outcome could affect Cousins' decision.
In seeking lessened fees, the NCAA alluded to Charles Dickens in calling the athletes' case "a tale of two lawsuits." It said many claims in the original 2009 lawsuit were unsuccessful, before the narrowed 2012 lawsuit found success.
Cousins, though, said a more apt allusion was to "Game of Thrones," adapted from the works of George R.R. Martin.
"In Martin's world, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground," Cousins wrote. "For plaintiffs, their trial victory in this adventurous, risky suit, while more than a mere game, is nothing less than a win."
Michael Hausfeld, a lawyer for the athletes, said: "It's a solid decision, and takes apart the NCAA's attempted fabrications."
The case is O'Bannon et al v. NCAA et al, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 09-03329. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Andrew Hay)