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ABA program examines suit threatening NCAA ‘amateurism’

With Monday night’s (Jan. 7) national championship game capping off the college football season and another crop of elite athletes forgoing their scholarships for NFL contracts, the ABA program Alston v. NCAA: Will “Amateurism” Survive examines the debate over amateurism in college athletics. The topic is the subject of a January 8 teleconference that explores whether the case violates antitrust laws.

In 2015, the Ninth Circuit overturned a 2014 ruling by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Claudia Wilken, in O’Bannon v. NCAA, that would have eroded the NCAA’s principle of “amateurism.”  Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit in 2009 claiming that the NCAA was illegally using basketball and football players’ images in video games without paying them. Wilkin ruled that the NCAA’s rules and bylaws operate as an unreasonable restraint of trade, in violation of antitrust law. The Ninth Circuit agreed with Judge Wilken that “the NCAA’s compensation rules were an unlawful restraint of trade.” But two of the three judges also concluded that preserving amateurism was an important goal and that any compensation athletes might receive had to be related to education. Both sides appealed the Ninth Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court, which refused in October 2016 to hear the case.

Judge Wilken is now faced with ruling on the question of whether the NCAA’s amateurism rules are unlawful in Alston v. NCAA, which went to trial last September in Oakland, Calif. The plaintiffs — former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston and University of California basketball player Justine Hartman — contend the rules capping scholarships violate federal antitrust laws and want the cap removed. The NCAA counters that the caps are essential to protecting amateurism in college athletics.

The outcome of the case could change the future of college sports, essentially turning college recruiting into a bidding war where conferences and colleges can make their own rules about how much scholarship money to award student-athletes.

The program is sponsored by the Section of Antitrust Law. Joining program moderator Bryan Bloom, New York Assistant Attorney General, are professors of law Michael Carrier, Rutgers Law School; Gabe Feldman, Tulane Law School; Maureen Weston, Pepperdine Law School; and attorney Sathya Gosselin, Hausfeld LLP.

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