One of the top sports labor lawyers in the world, Jeffrey Kessler, filed an antitrust claim against the NCAA and five conferences Monday in a New Jersey federal court, arguing on behalf of his clients—college basketball and football players—that an academic scholarship is unjust compensation for the excess of revenue they create.
Kessler explained his case to Tom Farrey of ESPN.com:
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. 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 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which has been filed against the NCAA and its five power conferences—the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12—are four current college athletes: Rutgers senior basketball player J.J. Moore, Clemson junior defensive back Martin Jenkins, Cal tight end Bill Tyndall and UTEP tight end Kevin Perry.
This is a significant development. Farrey calls the filing "the most direct challenge yet to the NCAA's longstanding economic model," and it's not hard to see why. Kessler is one of the highest-profile lawyers in the field and called the case "a frontal attack on the basic unfairness of the system," according to George Schroeder of USA Today.
Per Farrey, a similar claim had been filed last month by a Seattle-based firm "on behalf of former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston." However, that case is less aggressive, does not have current athletes as its plaintiffs and is not being spearheaded by a legal shark like Kessler.
This move comes at a pioneering time for college football. In February, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter requested that the National Labor Relations Board declare student-athletes employees of the university. It's the first move toward starting a players' union for college athletes.
Kessler's legal team includes a former member of the NCAA, Tim Nevius. Formerly one of the organization's top rule-violations investigators—Nevius is the one former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel admitted his wrongdoing to before getting fired—he might give the plaintiffs a valuable conduit regarding how the NCAA is run, where it might be vulnerable, where the bodies might be buried, etc.
Whether this claim is successful remains to be seen. Either way, cases like this, the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit and the Northwestern players' attempt to unionize show a clear trend toward rebellion against the status quo of the NCAA system.
As Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated puts it, the lawyers "smell blood (in the water)":
The lawyers smell blood. NCAA and conferences will keep getting hit with these unless something changes. http://t.co/5J88IgHEzW— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) March 17, 2014
It feels more and more like the NCAA is on the wrong side of history. The question is "when" and "how"—not "if"—college players will eventually receive financial compensation.
This case might be the flood that breaks the levee.