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New Class-Action Lawsuit Challenges NCAA's Amateur Model

On Monday, sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association on behalf of four current college football and basketball players, arguing that capping student-athlete compensation at the value of a scholarship constitutes an antitrust violation.

Suffice it to say, this is not the publicity the NCAA wants during the first week of its annual March Madness basketball tournament. If the case proceeds to court, it could have long-lasting ramifications for future college football and basketball players.

The lawsuit, which names the NCAA and its five "power conferences"—the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-12, and Southeastern—as defendants, alleges that scholarships place "a ceiling on the compensation" of student-athletes. Such restrictions are "pernicious, a blatant violation of the antitrust laws, have no legitimate pro-competitive justification, and should now be stuck down and enjoined," Kessler wrote in his filing.

The four main plaintiffs—Rutgers forward J.J. Moore, Clemson defensive back Martin Jenkins, UTEP tight end Kevin Perry, and California offensive lineman William Tyndall—and other current and future college football and men's basketball players "have received and/or will receive less remuneration for their playing services than they would receive in a competitive market," the suit alleges. Perry, Moore and Tyndall are all seniors and have thus extinguished their athletic eligibility, while Jenkins is a junior.

Instead of requesting damages, Kessler is seeking a permanent injunction against limiting the compensation of athletes in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision and Division I men's basketball players.

"The main objective is to strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate," Kessler told ESPN. "In no other business—and college sports is big business—would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn."

Below is a copy of the lawsuit, courtesy of Deadspin:

As noted by CNN.com's Sara Ganim, Kessler's role in this case could mean trouble for the NCAA. He helped usher in free agency in the National Football League and aided in the settlement of the 2011 NFL lockout. He also played a role in the establishment of the National Basketball Association's current salary-cap and free-agency systems.

A Possible Middle Ground? 

This is only the latest example of a growing backlash against the NCAA's current economic model. Earlier this year, a group of Northwestern University football players began the process of attempting to become unionized. Last November, as part of the ongoing Ed O'Bannon lawsuit over the use of student likenesses, a judge ruled that former and current Division I men's basketball players and Football Bowl Subdivision players whose "images, likenesses and/or names may be, or have been, included in game footage or in videogames licensed and sold by [the NCAA], their co-conspirators, or their licensees" can challenge the NCAA for its policy prohibiting compensation for athletes.

As Grantland's Andrew Sharp suggests, removing the prohibition on student-athletes signing endorsement deals could go a long way toward addressing Kessler's concerns about an open market:

"Let these kids sign endorsement deals. Coach K's been making millions from Nike for the past 20 years—why shouldn't Jabari Parker?

...

I'd love for colleges to compete on an open market for athletes one day, but for right now, the ban on endorsements is the most inexplicable rule the NCAA has left. And it's also the easiest to change. All it takes is someone with enough power to push them in the right direction."

ESPN's Jay Bilas has long trumpeted this so-called "Olympic model." Back in 2011, Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg proposed that the NCAA should redefine amateurism using one principle: "Athletes may not be paid directly with university funds." As he noted, "colleges don't prevent their students from making additional money... If a student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts is offered $2 million to direct a major-studio movie, that student would still be allowed to take his film classes."

Creating an open-market system like Kessler proposed in his lawsuit could create an endless slew of Title IX conflicts. The "Olympic model," while not without its faults, might be a way for the NCAA to meet Kessler in the middle when it comes to student-athlete compensation.

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