What Latest NCAA Lawsuit Means for Power 5 Conferences

Ben KerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterMarch 18, 2014

FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2013 file photo, NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks at the organization's annual convention  in Grapevine, Texas. Emmert says providing a stipend to student-athletes seems less threatening to schools that earlier knocked down a proposal to increase the value of a scholarship to cover the full cost of attendance. Emmert spoke at the American Football Coaches Association luncheon Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
LM Otero/Associated Press

The multi-front battles against the NCAA, from the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit to the unionization push by Northwestern players, attempt to mold what it means to be a student-athlete in today's college game. 

The latest lawsuit against the NCAA, filed by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, attempts to completely shatter the definition of amateurism. Take out the pin, toss the grenade and blow it all up. 

Via Tom Farrey of ESPN.com, Kessler's suit takes aim at the NCAA and its five power conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC—accusing them of price fixing by capping scholarship amounts. The suit seeks an injunction to end that. 

Ed O'Bannon
Ed O'BannonIsaac Brekken/Associated Press

In other words, if successful, a federal judge will declare that the NCAA can't have rules limiting what an athlete can make. Although it doesn't seek specific class-action damages, or ensure that everyone is compensated equally, it is the most explicit call to date to pay athletes their free-market value. 

B/R's Barrett Sallee writes that the NCAA should feel uneasy about Kessler's suit, and with good reason. No other legal action would render NCAA rules so useless. But how would college athletics' most powerful conferences be affected? After all, they are targets here too. 

As Sports Illustrated's legal expert, Michael McCann, explains, it creates a natural division within college athletics—more than there already is—in respect to which schools could afford to pay athletes and by how much. The NCAA's natural response would be that this leads to an anti-competitive environment: 

Kessler wants to eliminate caps on scholarships, not guarantee pay for players. So some players may end up with less. And also, this could lead to a system — and I think the NCAA would argue this — that is anti-competitive in its own right because some schools could afford to pay more, and therefore resources could be hoarded by some schools. It could make college sports prohibitively expensive for universities that don’t have the budgets of other schools.

Along similar lines, major college football bigwigs, like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, have pushed for an increase in the value of an athletic scholarship before. However, the NCAA's membership has yet to agree on exactly how to dole out the additional amount (and how much to dole out). Primarily, there's a divide between the so-called "haves" and "have nots" over the ability to pay athletes. 

Kessler's suit is similar to the one filed by former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, which also accuses the "Power Five" of capping scholarships. Given that some power conferences have supported an additional stipend to cover the full cost of attendance, Alston's suit feels like it could have been avoided. 

Shawne Alston
Shawne AlstonJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

The key difference, though, is that Alston's suit asks for damages for past wrongdoings. Kessler's suit, if successful, opens college athletics to a completely new model. 

The suit becomes an intriguing backdrop as the NCAA ponders a new governance structure that would give the five wealthiest conferences autonomy. If there is a further split in Division I, do the powerful conferences recap the value of a scholarship at a higher dollar amount like originally planned? Or, do they do away with a cap altogether?

The latter seems less likely because it would do away with the definition of amateurism. So, even in a new structure, there would be major questions. 

Some may think major college athletics is headed down the proverbial slippery slope, and there's merit to that line of thought. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating time for major college football and basketball. 


Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.