The NCAA’s amateurism model is once again under fire — this time in an antitrust lawsuit filed by sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler. Kessler, on behalf of four named current men’s basketball and football players (Clemson football player Martin Jenkins, Rutgers basketball player Johnathan Moore, Texas El-Paso football player Kevin Perry, and University of California basketball player William Tyndall), alleges the NCAA and the five major conferences (the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Big Ten Conference, the Pac-12 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference; these conferences currently include 62 member institutions) have entered into “cartel agreements” that unlawfully cap the compensation paid to student-athletes.

The suit seeks to eliminate current NCAA and conference amateurism regulations and  create a market where institutions compete for the services of men’s basketball and football players in a less regulated way. This would be a major shift from the NCAA’s current amateur model to one similar to free agency in professional sports that would permit student-athletes to attend the highest bidding institution.

“We believe that the business has grown so big in Division I men’s basketball and in the football championship series system that we believe that judges, jurors, the public, the media and many in college sports themselves recognize that change has to come,” Kessler told The Wall Street Journal.

Currently, student-athletes are eligible only to receive tuition, room and board, and course-related books from the institutions they attend. The suit refers to these limitations as “an artificial and unlawful ceiling.”

The current restrictions on student-athlete compensation also are characterized in the suit as a “patently unlawful price-fixing and group boycott arrangement.” The suit alleges the NCAA and its member institutions “have lost their way far down the road of commercialism, signing multi-billion dollar contracts wholly disconnected from the interests of ‘student athletes,’ who are barred from receiving the benefits of competitive markets for their services even though their services generate these massive revenues.”

Valuing the current broadcast rights for the NCAA Tournament at $11 billion and the College Football Playoff at $5.64 billion, the suit alleges student-athletes are not sufficiently rewarded for the financial success of men’s basketball and football.

“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.”

The suit questions why coaches, and not student-athletes, should benefit from the massive, and growing, revenues of college football and men’s basketball. It says that, “flush with cash and unable to compete for athletes on the basis of financial remuneration, colleges have directed their resources and competitive efforts to, among other things, the hiring of head coaches, instead of players.”

The suit seeks to permanently enjoin the alleged antitrust violations and to recover individual damages for the named plaintiffs.



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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.