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Trial in Landmark Student-Athlete Compensation Case Gets Underway

NCAAAs an exciting weekend of college football kickoff games comes to a close, a trial that could fundamentally alter the landscape of collegiate athletics is just beginning. On September 4th, a bench trial began in the consolidated cases of Jenkins v. NCAA and In Re Athletic Grant-In-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation. Largely considered the strongest legal challenge to the principle of amateurism to date, the consolidated Jenkins has been bound for trial since March 28th of this year, when Judge Claudia Wilken of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California denied the NCAA’s Motion for Summary Judgement.

While the 2015 case of O’Bannon v. NCAA centered around the NCAA’s restriction on a student athlete’s ability to profit from their own name and likeness, the Plaintiffs in Jenkins challenge the NCAA’s grant-in-aid cap generally, raising allegations of price-fixing and a restraint of trade on the market for athletic scholarships, all in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.[1]

In March of this year, the Plaintiffs prevailed in their defense of a Motion for Summary Judgement filed by the NCAA. This pre-trial win for the Plaintiffs meant that the Judge would not dismiss the case as the NCAA wanted, and a closer examination of the Judge’s Order reveals that she may be leaning towards siding with the student-athletes heading into trial.

In her description of each side’s evidentiary showings thus far, Judge Wilkens noted: “Plaintiffs have produced undisputed evidence that greater compensation and benefits would be offered in the recruitment of student-athletes absent the challenged rules, meeting their burden for summary adjudication on this question. Defendants . . . have not meaningfully disputed Plaintiffs’ showing that the challenged restraints produce significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market.”[2] This excerpt appears to indicate the Judge’s positive view of the student-athletes’ argument thus far . . . could it also be viewed as foreshadowing a ruling in their favor?

The start of this trial has been a long-time-coming for the Plaintiffs in this consolidated litigation—a group which includes three classes of current and former NCAA Division I college athletes, representing college football and men’s and women’s college basketball.[3] The complaint in the case was filed back in March of 2014, meaning that this legal battle has recently stretched into its fourth year.

As the trial begins, this consolidated litigation is also complicated by the sheer magnitude of its potential holding. Because the outcome of this litigation could have an effect on many different parties—from universities, to athletic conferences, to media companies—many amicus briefs have been filed for Judge Wilkens’ consideration. ESPN, FOX, and several other sports media companies have taken that idea a step further, officially joining as parties in the case back in 2016.

Regardless of the outcome, Jenkins v. NCAA is sure to have an impact on the landscape of college sports, and could potentially change the idea of amateurism as we know it.

For more information, please contact an attorney in our Sports practice group.

This article was written by Katelyn Dwyer, law student at the University of Tennessee College of Law, with contributions from Dana Drew Shaw. 


[1] Marc Edelman, A Prelude to Jenkins v. NCAA: Amateurism, Antitrust Law, and the Role of Consumer Demand in A Proper Rule of Reason Analysis, 78 La. L. Rev. 227, 239-40 (2017).

[2] Id. at *8.

[3] Zachary Zagger, NCAA Amateur System Under Scrutiny In Landmark Trial, Law360, https://www.law360.com/articles/1074366.

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