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The legal challenges that could overhaul college sports

Just like that, Jordan Meachum, a former running back at Sacred Heart University, sat across from President Biden on Wednesday, sharing his views on the need for third-party medical administrators in college sports, then why athletes deserve a slice of booming television revenues. It felt like a stark sign of the times.

“Everyone is waking up and seeing that change needs to happen in some form,” said Meachum, who represented the College Football Players Association in a White House roundtable focused on safety and medical care in college football. The other participants: former players Andrew Luck, Ryan Clark, Desmond Howard, Rod Gilmore and Keith Marshall and ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi. Biden sat in for about 40 minutes of an hour-long discussion, joining two White House officials.

“You don’t want to get left behind in the change,” Meachum continued. “So why not get ahead and have conversations about these hard topics now, rather than later down the line when it may be a little too late and things could spiral out of control, you know?”

The White House meeting was another footnote in this moment for college sports, with a steady stream of hearings and court cases that could fundamentally change the ways the NCAA must operate.

This past Friday, Claudia Wilken, a U.S. District Judge in Northern California, certified three classes in the House v. NCAA antitrust case, meaning thousands of athletes — including Power Five conference players in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — could receive more than $4 billion in damages. The plaintiffs aim to prove these players are entitled to backpay related to the use of their names, images and likenesses during television broadcasts.

Beyond the significant financial implications, a loss for the NCAA here could overhaul payment rules around name, image and likeness, permitting schools and conferences to directly compensate athletes for their performance. A trial is set for January 2025, though Wilken has floated moving it up.

This lawsuit, among others, shows why the NCAA has pushed so hard for a federal antitrust exemption, most recently trying to have one baked into a congressional bill on NIL (10 hearings and counting have yielded little traction there). And it also shows why the NCAA is likely to increase its efforts to settle in the House case, yet each development has given the plaintiffs less and less reason to.

“The NCAA, if they had their way, they would love to get a federal law that has an antitrust exemption that would basically wipe out the House case and future cases like it,” said Mit Winter, a Kansas City-based college sports attorney for Kennyhertz Perry. “... And I think college sports leaders are starting to realize that number one: It is unlikely they are going to get a federal law like that. And number two: The longer they wait, the worse it is going to get for them because the House case is going to move forward, and it’s the same judge from Alston and O’Bannon, so she’s very likely to rule against the NCAA.”

So the House case could alter college sports in drastic ways. At the moment, though, it’s far from alone.

On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board held its first hearing on unfair labor charges brought against USC, the Pac-12 conference and the NCAA. The NLRB’s Los Angeles office filed the charges on behalf of athletes, arguing the school has been mislabeling them as “student athletes” when they are treated like employees. A loss for the NCAA in this case would be a major step toward employee status for college athletes, a possibility that elicits a range of opinions across the industry.

The hearings, which continued Thursday, could stretch into late February. Administrative Law Judge Eleanor Laws has already denied USC’s, the Pac-12’s and the NCAA’s motions to dismiss the charges. Testimony is expected to begin in Los Angeles next month.

All the while, Dartmouth’s men’s basketball team is waiting for the NLRB’s decision on whether it can hold a union election (another potential step toward employment status). In Pennsylvania, in Johnson v. NCAA, a group of Division I athletes are asking to be recognized as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires covered employees be paid minimum wage and overtime (yet another potential step toward ... you get the point).

In that case, a three-judge panel is still deliberating whether U.S. District Judge John Padova used the proper standard when he denied the NCAA’s motion to dismiss in 2021. If change is coming, it will take time.

According to Meachum, Wednesday’s White House discussion touched a bit on NIL and whether college athletes should be employees. But with only an hour to swap ideas, the group mostly stuck to safety and medical issues in football, plus how to approach revenue sharing, which Meachum said the roundtable agreed should be implemented. From his hotel Wednesday night, Meachum hinged his arguments — for both independent medical oversight and revenue sharing — on two facets of conference realignment: rising television revenue and the increased travel demands for athletes across sports. Starting next year, it will be routine for teams to fly through multiple time zones for conference games.

Asked by The Washington Post whether the White House has any plans to host current or former female athletes for similar conversations, an official said in a statement: “The challenges discussed at [Wednesday’s] drop-by impact all student-athletes, and our team will continue to engage on these issues with all student-athletes.”

Yes, the questions raised in Washington on Wednesday, plus the stakes of each active lawsuit and NLRB case, are wide-reaching. Each decision will be, too. And the legal challenges to the NCAA are certainly not confined to the highest-profile cases. Earlier this month, twins Matthew and Ryan Bewley sued the NCAA, alleging it is violating antitrust law — plus Illinois’s state NIL rules — by denying their eligibility to play basketball at Chicago State.

The NCAA, the lawsuit says, deemed the twins ineligible because the compensation they received from the Overtime Elite basketball league as high school players exceeded “actual and necessary expenses.”

“If that federal court does rule Illinois law says NIL compensation can’t affect eligibility, it really means that NIL compensation given to high school athletes as a recruiting inducement to go to a certain school can’t affect their eligibility,” Winter said, noting this is the first case of its kind pitting the NCAA’s NIL rules against a state’s NIL regulations for high school players.

“Another one to keep an eye on, and there will probably be more.”

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