A federal court judge on Friday denied an NCAA motion to dismiss a major challenge to the economic model of big-time college sports in a ruling strongly siding with players asking the court to allow them to be compensated for their images and likenesses in television and other media products.

The decision was the latest blow to the NCAA, the lone defendant left in what has become known as the Ed O'Bannon antitrust case. EA Sports, the video game manufacturer, and the Collegiate Licensing Company, which represents the NCAA and member schools in trademark opportunities, recently agreed to settle the case with the plaintiffs for $40 million.

"It is a significant ruling and clears the path for student-athletes to secure some measure of fairness," said Rob Carey, the lawyer for some of the 20 players who have filed a consolidated claim.

Next up for Judge Claudia Wilken is issuing an opinion on whether to certify the players' claim as a class action, which would bring thousands of current and former players into the case and grow the potential damages into the billions, should the NCAA eventually lose at trial.

"It's a relief," said Sonny Vaccaro, an NCAA critic who has advised the plaintiffs' attorneys. "There are no more options for the NCAA in getting this case thrown out [on procedural grounds]. She just keeps moving it forward, and now the players have some closure. They will get their day in court. That's all you can ask for."

An NCAA spokesman did not return requests for comment.

In its court filings, the NCAA made several arguments for dismissing the players' claims before the class certification stage. Most significantly, the organization contended the claims are "nothing more than a challenge to the NCAA's rules on amateurism" and must be rejected because, in the NCAA's view, the Supreme Court already ruled in 1984 that players cannot be paid.

That case stripped the NCAA of its ability to control television rights, handing them over to individual schools and conferences. But buried in the middle of the majority opinion, written by former Justice John Paul Stevens, was the following sentence: "In order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA's] 'product,' athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like."

The NCAA has long used that sentence to justify its model in the courts. But Wilken rejected that language, from the case known as NCAA v. Board of Regents, as the law of the land.

"[That case] focused on a different set of competitive restraints than the rules challenged in this case," Wilken wrote. "Indeed, the Supreme Court never even analyzed the NCAA's ban on student-athlete compensation under the rule of reason nor did it cite fact findings indicating that this is the type of [restraint] which is 'essential if the [NCAA's] product is to be available at all.'

"While Board of Regents [gives] the NCAA 'ample latitude' to adopt rules preserving 'the revered tradition of amateurism in college sports,' it does not stand for the sweeping proposition that student-athletes must be barred, both during the college years and forever thereafter, from receiving any monetary compensation for the commercial use of their names, images and likenesses."

Experts noted that although the case was filed more than four years ago, it's still at a relatively early stage when the plaintiff's arguments are given considerable leeway. In 2006, players passed the class certification hurdle with a federal judge in a case, White vs. NCAA, that challenged the NCAA's prohibition on schools covering the full cost of attendance -- an amount about $2,500 more than the annual value of an athletic scholarship.