College athletes look to antitrust case as best hope for payday

Tue Aug 18, 2015 8:01pm EDT
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By Joseph Ax and Ben Klayman

NEW YORK/DETROIT (Reuters) - Football players at Northwestern University may have lost a bid to unionize on Monday, but a broader legal challenge has targeted the practice of excluding college athletes from sharing in the multibillion dollar bonanza they help generate.

Alleging the current system of providing scholarships, but no pay, to the country's best athletes violates U.S. antitrust law, a group of football and men’s basketball players is suing the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The Northwestern players were dealt a defeat when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) denied their petition to organize a union. But its ruling declined to rule on the case's central issue: whether the athletes are truly amateurs, as the NCAA argues, given the massive revenue they generate for their schools.

That question is squarely at the heart of the 2014 antitrust lawsuit, which claims the NCAA and its biggest conferences constitute an “unlawful cartel” that should be forced to compensate athletes with a share of its earnings.

The lawsuit, filed by the prominent sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler on behalf of the players poses a threat to the NCAA's "amateur" model, since it seeks a free market for athletes’ pay.

“That’s the key litigation,” said lawyer John Adam, who represented the Northwestern players before the NLRB. “College sport is great, but it’s a business. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s a business isn’t keeping up with reality.”

The NCAA declined to comment on Tuesday on future challenges but has defended its amateur rules as key to preserving the college sports system.

The NCAA reported $871.6 million in revenue in 2011-12, mostly from media rights, including a $10.8 billion, 14-year contract with broadcaster CBS (CBS.N: Quote).   Continued...

The exterior of Ryan Field, home field for the Northwestern University football team, is seen while athletes voted to determine if they want to form a union in Evanston, Illinois, April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Young