New Lawsuit Poses Direct Challenge To NCAA’s Amateurism Rules


We told you in October that Jeffrey Kessler, the prominent labor lawyer who has represented players’ unions in three of America’s major sports leagues, was turning his attention to college sports, and that his decision to launch a legal division focused solely on issues in collegiate athletics should worry the NCAA.

This week, just a day before the NCAA Tournament is set to begin, Kessler took his first major action. ESPN reports that Kessler today filed a lawsuit on behalf of all men’s college basketball and football players, asserting that the NCAA, its largest conferences, and its member institutions have violated antitrust laws by agreeing to cap players’ compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship.

As ESPN notes, the lawsuit, which includes four college athletes as lead plaintiffs but was filed as a class action, “effectively asks for an end to NCAA-style amateurism.”

“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.”

Kessler’s suit is far more aggressive than the previous lawsuits filed against the NCAA, including the major case brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon that is winding its way through court right now and another antitrust suit from a former West Virginia football player.

Kessler’s suit, according to ESPN, doesn’t seek damages as those cases do. Instead, it simply asks for an end to the “cartel” the NCAA has set up to prevent players from having the right to earn more than the scholarships they are currently provided.

If the agreements to only offer scholarships weren’t in place, the argument against the current model goes, players could earn more than they do now because the business of college athletics would function as a true labor market. That would give players more rights in the system and the ability to share in the profits they help create each year (CBS and Turner Sports agreed in 2010, for instance, to pay more than $10 billion for the broadcast rights to the NCAA Tournament).

“There are good (legal) arguments that Division I football is basically a business, and that students are exploited as workers,” Kessler told me in January 2013. “And therefore schools should be free to compensate athletes in any manner that they want to, without NCAA restrictions.”