Winston & Strawn Files Class Action Against NCAA and Major Conferences Challenging Restrictions on College Athletes’ Compensation

Antitrust challenge to limits on remuneration and financial aid

New York, NY – In a landmark antitrust suit filed today against the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) and the five NCAA “power conferences” (the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the ACC, and the Big-12), Winston & Strawn LLP, on behalf of a group of current college football and basketball athletes, and a class of similarly situated players, charged the Defendants with illegally restraining competition for the services of players. The suit alleges that the challenged restraints yield “billions of dollars in revenues each year through the hard work, sweat and sometimes broken bodies of top-tier college football and men’s basketball athletes,” according to the complaint filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. 

The case challenges under federal antitrust laws the limits the NCAA and the conferences impose on the remuneration and financial aid that top division football and men’s basketball players are permitted to receive. The case seeks permanent injunctive relief against the restraints on a class-wide basis, and individual damages for the player plaintiffs.

“Instead of permitting individual institutions to compete for the services of players who participate in their major college sports businesses, the NCAA and the power conferences act as a cartel in placing a cap on the athletes’ compensation,” said Winston & Strawn partner Jeffrey L. Kessler, who heads the firm’s global antitrust practice and co-chairs its internationally regarded sports law practice. “These restrictions are a blatant violation of antitrust laws, have no legitimate pro-competitive justification, and it is finally time to bring them to an end.”

The class action lawsuit is endorsed by the National College Players Association and its Executive Director, Ramogi Huma. “The bottom line of this collusion by the NCAA and its conferences is that players receive less for their services than they would in a fair and competitive market. This is unfair and hurtful to the athletes,” said Mr. Huma. He added: “Winston & Strawn has closely consulted with the NCPA, and we hope that Jeff Kessler and his colleagues will achieve the same results for the highest level of college football and basketball players that he has historically achieved in fighting for NFL and NBA players against anticompetitive restraints.”

Under NCAA and conference rules, players may receive only tuition, required fees, room and board, and required course-related books in exchange for their services as college football and men’s basketball players. These restrictions are naked price fixing agreements, according to the complaint.

The Complaint alleges that the Defendants and their member institutions have exploited the players “under false claims of amateurism,” and “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,” according to the complaint.

Mr. Kessler and his team -- headed by New York Winston partners David Feher and David Greenspan -- have litigated some of the most famous sports-antitrust cases in history, including the landmark antitrust jury trial, McNeil v. the NFL, which led to the establishment of free agency in the National Football League, and Brady v. NFL, which led to the end of the 2011 NFL lockout. Mr. Kessler and his firm are outside counsel to both the NFL Players Association and the National Basketball Players Association.

In October 2013, Winston & Strawn announced the launch of the firm’s college sports practice group led by David Greenspan and Tim Nevius, a former NCAA lead investigator. The practice group provides comprehensive legal services to clients involved in all aspects of college and amateur athletics, including the representation of clients involved in disputes with the NCAA.