For years, the NCAA has been swatting away lawsuits from former student-athletes as if they were 1 seeds cracking down on a 16 in the first round of March Madness. As the years have gone by these class action lawsuits have begun chipping at the NCAA's vulnerability. The most recent lawsuit filed against the NCAA could put the amateur status on its back for good.
On Monday, sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler filed an antitrust claim in a New Jersey courtroom as the representative of a group of active college basketball and football players who argue that player compensation was unlawfully capped at the value of an athletic scholarship.
Yet for the embattled NCAA, the most significant aspect of the new lawsuit may be the entry of Kessler, a litigator with a history of victories against sports leagues reaching to the 1970s. Kessler helped bring free agency to the NFL, winning a key jury verdict for the NFL Players Association in 1992. He remains outside counsel to the NFLPA and the NBA's player union, has taken on Major League Baseball and represented star athletes including Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. For municipal authorities, he forced the Raiders to honor their stadium lease and stay in Oakland.
Kessler also has a former NCAA insider riding shotgun in this effort: Tim Nevius, previously one of the organization's top investigators of rules violations and now co-chair of the college sports practice at their New York-based law firm. As an associate director of enforcement, Nevius worked on some of the NCAA's most high-profile investigations, including that of Ohio State football, whose former coach, Jim Tressel, lost his job after admitting to Nevius he had broken NCAA rules related to his knowledge of the sale of memorabilia by players.
In Kessler's class action lawsuit, the NCAA is identified as a cartel which has fixed the market price on student-athletes. The fact that these athletes are still active is especially intriguing when you couple it with the news of Northwestern football's battle for union status. The NCAA may still have the upper hand, but student-athletes are no longer treating the NCAA with the same blind reverence as before.