NCAA headed to another trial over pay-for-play rules

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is headed to trial in a case that could fundamentally change college sports, opening the door for student athletes to collect more compensation.

A federal judge in Oakland, California, on Wednesday refused a request from the Indianapolis-based NCAA to throw out the case and scheduled a trial for Dec. 3. The athletes are pushing for deregulation that would allow regional conferences to set rules on the expenses that colleges can cover. Legal experts said they still have a long way to go to score a victory.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken previously sided with the athletes in an antitrust lawsuit led by former University of California at Los Angeles basketball star Ed O’Bannon, though she stopped short of allowing a completely open market on athlete licensing. Her 2014 ruling after a trial was later pared back by the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

That lawsuit focused primarily on the ability of athletes to profit off their likenesses. O’Bannon claimed he deserved compensation for his image being used in video games. The case now headed to trial is much broader, focusing on whether to lift all NCAA limits on compensation for Division I athletes.

Wednesday’s ruling “recognized, as other courts have for decades, that principles of amateurism and student-athlete well-being are critical to college sports,” the NCAA said in a statement. “We look forward to proving at trial that the rules are essential to providing educational opportunities to nearly half a million student athletes.”

‘Home run’

Steve Berman, a Seattle-based attorney representing the athletes alongside labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, called the ruling a “home run,” saying it lets his clients pursue dramatic changes to existing rules. The NCAA is limited to arguing at trial that these proposals will harm amateurism or academics, he said.

“We’ve proven to the court already that the NCAA’s actions constitute anti-competitive behavior causing injury to student-athletes,” Berman said in a statement. “Now, the court will put the NCAA to the test to prove its rationalization for the scholarship caps is justified.”

Former Clemson University football player Martin Jenkins, the lead plaintiff, contends the scholarship process itself is an unfair cap on wages. Colleges are depicted in the suit as conspirators — not competitors — during the recruiting process. If a player is worth more to a school than the value of his full cost-of-attendance scholarship, he should be compensated as such, according to the complaint.

Cost of attendance

After the 2014 ruling by Wilken, top-tier athletic departments have begun offering scholarships that meet the total cost of attendance to most, if not all, its athletes.

Tyrone Thomas, a lawyer who specializes in employment and athletics, said he’s not surprised the judge is letting the Jenkins case go to trial, but doesn’t expect the outcome will radically alter how athletes are treated.

“Would there be a change?” he said. “Absolutely, but to the degree the plaintiffs hope, I’m not so sure.”

Two law professors who specialize in athletics issues — Gabe Feldman at Tulane University and Steve Ross at Penn State — stressed that the students must still prove at trial that the current NCAA rules are illegal.

Wednesday’s ruling “is a preview to the question: ‘What would college sports look like if the NCAA was not allowed to forbid the payments?”’ Feldman said. “One answer is that individual conferences could decide on a conference level.”

In 2017, Wilken granted approval to a $208.6 million settlement with the NCAA for thousands of Division I football and basketball players who sought reimbursement for the difference between the capped scholarships they received and the actual cost of attending college.

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