Over the span of three seasons, Adam Tafralis was in the spotlight as San Jose State's starting quarterback, setting records and leading his team to a bowl game in 2006.

But as with many college athletes who must train year-round to play at the highest level, being a star was not all glamour. Tafralis lived off a monthly stipend that was part of his scholarship deal, cramming into an apartment with five other guys so he could afford rent, food, utility bills and anything else a college student might need to attend school in pricey Silicon Valley.

For decades, this has been life under the NCAA's ban on paying college athletes beyond scholarships to play football and basketball, sports that rake in billions of dollars for their universities.

Screenshot  of "NCAA Football 06" (Electronic Arts)
Screenshot of "NCAA Football 06" (Electronic Arts) ( Electronic Arts )

But an unprecedented federal court trial opening Monday in Oakland could forever change the rules of the game in NCAA sports. And that would please former college stars like Tafralis, who now trains athletes at San Jose's Valley Christian High School and tutors quarterbacks from around the country.

"We should be able to live like a person that works," said Tafralis, who after his San Jose State career spent a year in the NFL and later played in the Canadian Football League.

Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken will spend the next three weeks considering a class-action lawsuit mounted by current and former Division I college athletes, including NBA legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, arguing that the NCAA's restrictions on compensating student-athletes violate federal antitrust laws.


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While the case itself would not do away with the NCAA's control over college athletics, a loss could greatly weaken restrictions on student-athletes' right to a piece of the lucrative college sports pie -- and have a ripple effect on the growing pile of lawsuits across the country that attack the organization's grip on college sports.

The trial stems from a four-year legal battle that has ignited a movement to change the NCAA's handling of top-tier college athletes, most recently seen with Northwestern University's football players seeking the right to unionize.

FILE - In this April 3, 1995, file photo, UCLA’s Ed O’Bannon celebrates after his team won the NCAA championship game against Arkansas in
FILE - In this April 3, 1995, file photo, UCLA's Ed O'Bannon celebrates after his team won the NCAA championship game against Arkansas in Seattle. O'Bannon is suing the NCAA over its use of former student athletes' images in DVDs, video games, photographs, apparel and other material. In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, July 21, 2009, O'Bannon says the NCAA illegally has athletes sign away their rights to the commercial use of their images and does not share any of the proceeds from their use with former athletes. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File) ( Eric Draper )

The NCAA strongly defends the current system, saying it protects the amateur nature of college sports, promotes fair competition at the college level and ensures that education continues to be the central mission for student-athletes.

NCAA lawyers declined to comment. But in court papers, they say removing the restrictions would cause widespread damage, including siphoning away money generated by football and basketball that now funds dozens of other college sports that don't bring in much revenue. The NCAA relies heavily on a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the organization "played an important role in regulation of amateur collegiate sports," and it has vowed to press its case to the high court if it loses.

San Jose State University Spartans starting quarterback Adam Tafralis, No. 17, throws against the U.C. Davis Aggies in the third quarter at Spartan Stadium
San Jose State University Spartans starting quarterback Adam Tafralis, No. 17, throws against the U.C. Davis Aggies in the third quarter at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif. on Saturday, September 29, 2007. (Nhat V. Meyer/Mercury News)

The case set to unfold before Wilken, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, centers specifically on claims the NCAA conspired to prevent football and basketball players from being paid for the use of their images in everything from video games to merchandise such as jerseys and T-shirts.

Perhaps most important, the athletes argue the NCAA is acting like a cartel in blocking licensing rights that would allow them to earn money from television revenue, the lifeblood of big-time college sports. The Pac-12 conference alone, which includes Stanford and Cal, has a contract with ESPN and Fox that will pay about $3 billion over 12 years for football and basketball television rights.

In a related lawsuit, EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Co. agreed to pay $40 million to former college players to settle claims that they weren't compensated for the use of their images in popular college football and basketball video games. That deal was submitted to Wilken a week ago. The NCAA remains a defendant in that case, which is set for trial next year, although NCAA lawyers told the judge recently they are working on a settlement that could permit athletes to gain video game licensing rights after leaving their schools.

The lead plaintiff in that case is Sam Keller, a former San Ramon Valley High School standout quarterback who went on to play for Arizona State and Nebraska. He believes the legal challenges should alter the landscape for athletes, given the huge dollars flowing into college sports programs.

"My goal was to just change it so it's fair," said Keller, who lives in Arizona. "Everything is driven by money. (When you are playing), you realize they make significant bucks off me being in that game. I realized something was wrong with (that) picture."

In the upcoming trial before Wilken, the former athletes, unlike those in the EA video game case, are not seeking damages; they want an injunction to block the NCAA from forbidding athletes' access to broadcast and other revenues. Legal experts say it is unclear how such an injunction would work going forward -- but predict dramatic changes if the court finds that the NCAA violates antitrust laws.

The outcome could set precedent for the spate of lawsuits pending against the NCAA, including recent cases that directly challenge the ban on earning money beyond scholarships for playing college sports.

"Obviously the case is important because it's the first one," said Nathaniel Grow, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in sports business. "This really sets the stage for a lot of issues that would follow."

The trial is expected to include testimony from some former college athletes, perhaps including Russell and Robertson. NCAA President Mark Emmert will also take the stand to defend the organization's regulations. And each side will present dueling economics experts, with Stanford University's Roger Noll the chief witness for the former athletes.

Whatever Wilken decides, the final outcome is far down the road, given that the case likely would be headed to a federal appeals court and perhaps the Supreme Court. But the trial is sure to stir the debate over whether the Johnny Footballs of the college sports world should gain the right to get paid for their role in filling stadiums and arenas.

"I don't think kids should be paid like NFL guys," Tafralis said. "I don't think they should be paid in college like a professional athlete. But you should be able to live in a way so you can achieve the most for yourself. You should be able to afford food and rent for yourself."

Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz