By Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. college athletes will get a chance to prove in court that sports team members should be paid, after a federal judge on Friday rejected the National College Athletic Association's attempt to head off a trial in the widely watched case.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, California, denied a request the NCAA made last year to decide the case in its favor before trial. The NCAA argued that the current system is justified because amateur status makes college athletics more popular and furthers competition.
More than 20 current and former athletes sued, saying that players should share in the profits of college athletics, a highly lucrative business in which universities reap billions of dollars from men's football and basketball. The athletes say they should be compensated for the money they help earn from sources such as video game licensing and television revenue.
NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy said on Friday the NCAA has confidence in the legal merits of its case and looks forward to trial, which is scheduled to begin in June.
"The model we have today enables nearly half a million student-athletes at over a thousand schools to compete on the playing field while getting a college degree," Remy said in an emailed statement.
The players allege that the NCAA violated federal antitrust law by conspiring with videogame maker Electronic Arts Inc and the NCAA's licensing arm to restrain competition in the market for the commercial use of the players' names, images, and likenesses.
The athletes also had originally sued EA, which settled.
Fox Broadcasting Co, a unit of News Corp, filed court papers supporting the NCAA's request to head off the trial.
In an order on Friday, Wilken cited evidence from the athletes that the NCAA has changed its definition of amateurism several times without hurting consumer demand for its product. Thus the NCAA must prove the case at trial, she wrote.
The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is In Re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Licensing Litigation, 09-1967.
(Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by David Gregorio and Ken Wills)