(CNN) -

College football is changing.

About half of the players who put on pads and helmets this weekend will have the opportunity to make money from their sport before they graduate.

This summer, a federal judge in California ruled that for the first time in college sports, athletes who generate millions of dollars for their universities and for corporate sponsors may start cashing in.

Judge Claudia Wilkins found that the NCAA's ban on athletes being paid for the use of their images and likenesses was a violation of antitrust laws.

This means that starting in 2016, universities can choose to pay college football and basketball players up to $5,000 per year for the use of their images.

The ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon.

O'Bannon was sitting at a friend's house watching himself in a video game when the wheels began to turn: Why, he wondered, is my image being used years after I'm out of college to make money for someone else?

And it all did start that way --- sort of.

O'Bannon will certainly be remembered as one of the first big-name athletes to risk standing up to the NCAA and having an opinion.

But the proverbial stars were certainly aligned.

Around the same time that O'Bannon got upset about his avatar, the man who practically invented branding athletes was at his own turning point.

Sonny Vaccaro had launched his career by suggesting to Nike executives that they start paying athletes to wear their gear. He put the first Nike shoes on Michael Jordan and became the godfather of athlete endorsements.

Anyone who's ever caught a glimpse of a sporting event on TV knows that teams secure big endorsement deals on everything from socks and sweatbands to the cups that members of the press drink on the sidelines.

But Vaccaro also saw the inequities in college sports, where universities and the NCAA were banking millions off the backs of kids who were struggling to pay for laundry.

He was telling anyone who'd listen.

One of those people was a friend who happened to be a lawyer with a loose connection to one of the best class-action lawyers in the country, Michael Hausfeld.

Hausfeld has a tremendous courtroom record. He's taken on Swiss banks who stole from Holocaust victims and manufacturers of genetically engineered foods. He's even won some notable sports cases.

But he's the first to admit he knows absolutely nothing about sports. During the trial against the NCAA, Hausfeld acknowledged to co-counsel that he wasn't familiar with Tanya Harding or Johnny Manziel.

But Hausfeld saw merit in Vaccaro's inequity argument, and he took on O'Bannon's case.

"It's the irony of this case, the odds of it happening. It almost didn't happen," Vaccaro said. "This is, to me, the most important thing I've ever done in my life. I've helped this case move forward. If I don't run into Michael Hausfeld, it probably never happens."

NCAA on the defensive

Over its five-year journey through federal court in Oakland, California, the suit had a huge impact on public opinion of the NCAA. Even before it got to a courtroom, it put the organization on the defense.

The case quickly changed from being a grievance about video games to a broad indictment of the association that regulates college athletes.

At trial, there were witnesses talking about academic fraud, corporate sponsorships, internal disputes within the NCAA, and even health and safety.

But the judge, in her ruling, said that other criticisms of the NCAA are better suited for public policy forums, not the courts.