A federal judge granted class-action status on Friday to two lawsuits asserting that the National Collegiate Athletic Association and 11 major conferences unlawfully cap the compensation of college athletes at the value of a scholarship.
The cases directly challenge the current business model behind intercollegiate sports, and the class-action status exposes the NCAA and the conferences to huge financial losses because of the number of athletes who could profit from a final decision in their favor.
USA Today reports that Friday’s ruling, by Judge Claudia Wilken of the U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif., will allow cases involving top football and men’s and women’s basketball players to proceed. A ruling against class-action status would have limited the cases only to the plaintiffs directly involved in them.
The NCAA and the 11 conferences had argued against class-action status, saying that a ruling that overturned the current cap on compensation would benefit some athletes and hurt others. But in a ruling rejecting that argument, Judge Wilken wrote that it was based on the assumption that NCAA colleges “could not afford to spend more money compensating all student-athletes rather than cutting payments to some,” according to USA Today. “That assumption,” the judge wrote, “is not supported.”
The NCAA seems likely to appeal the ruling by Judge Wilken, who in a landmark 2014 decision in a separate antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA threw open the doors for athletes to be paid for the use of their images and likenesses. The main finding of that decision, O’Bannon v. NCAA, was upheld on appeal two months ago.
Whatever the outcome of that case, experts have long acknowledged that one of the lawsuits affected by Judge Wilken’s ruling on Friday poses a much greater threat to the NCAA than the O’Bannon case does. That lawsuit, brought by the prominent antitrust lawyer Jeffrey L. Kessler, argues that free-market principles should govern player compensation.
USA Today quotes a response by Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief legal officer: “The NCAA and its members award $2.7 billion in athletics scholarships every year to more than 150,000 student-athletes. The plaintiffs continue to misconstrue and inaccurately portray these scholarships. As other federal court decisions have consistently stated, agreeing to appropriate limits on financial aid does not violate antitrust laws.”