Keeping Score

NCAA Facing Legal Challenges Over Health and Compensation Policies

Players are suing the NCAA for not paying fair compensation and being lax on concussions. And they're scoring some wins

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You may not care much about college sports. But if you care about honesty, integrity and fairness in American higher education — and business, because college sports are a multibillion-dollar enterprise — it’s worth paying attention to the legal challenges facing the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

For years, the NCAA has capped player compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship. As the college-sports business has exploded, and schools, coaches and administrators have taken bigger cuts of the revenue pie, the cash compensation for student athletes has remained consistent: $0. Four years ago, former college-basketball star Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, video-game maker EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Company challenging the NCAA’s right to profit off the likeness of former college athletes in video games, even as the players themselves saw none of those revenues. Earlier this summer, a hearing was held in a federal court in Oakland to determine if the case would be granted class-action status. Though the judge, Claudia Wilken, hasn’t ruled on certification, she allowed the plaintiffs to add current college players to the complaint.

Last Thursday, six current college football players were added to the suit: a linebacker and kicker from the University of Arizona, a cornerback from Clemson, a linebacker from Vanderbilt, and a receiver and tight end from the University of Minnesota. This move raises the legal stakes and potential damages to the NCAA. Do current players have rights to the millions of dollars of revenue that conferences and schools receive from the television networks, just like professional athletes do? If Wilken certifies the class with current players, says Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University’s Sports Law program, “this changes the game. It would be a more imminent threat to the NCAA’s amateurism model.”

(MORE: Ex-USC Football Player: My Coach Called Me a Motherf—-r for Going to Class)

While the O’Bannon litigation attracted its fair share of attention, the NCAA is facing another serious legal challenge: from former athletes claiming the NCAA was lax on concussions. These plaintiffs are also seeking class-action status, and internal NCAA documents appear damaging to the organization. Among the revelations in the documents, which were first reported by the Washington Times:

— A Georgia assistant football trainer wrote in a 2009 e-mail to NCAA director of health and safety David Klossner: “I personally have seen an athlete knocked unconscious and return in the same quarter in recent years.” (On Sunday night, the trainer emphasized in an interview that the athletes weren’t from Georgia.)

— NCAA staffers mocked Klossner’s efforts to adopt a concussion policy. One employee wrote, in an e-mail, that he was like a “cartoon character,” and complained about him being “hot/heavy on the concussion stuff.”

— A 2010 NCAA internal survey said 50% of the responding schools didn’t require an athlete who suffered a concussion to see a physician. Around half the schools said they’d return athletes to the same game if they got a concussion. Just 68% of the schools used baseline testing; of those that didn’t, 70% said cost factored into their decision, while 48% said the process was too time-consuming.

— In a 2013 deposition, Klossner admitted that NCAA institutions are not required to submit their concussion-management plans to the NCAA. He was asked: “Has the NCAA considered disciplining institutions regarding concussion-management plans?” His reply: “No, not to my knowledge.”

Last year, South Carolina’s football team lost scholarships and self-imposed recruiting restrictions because players got discounted rates at a hotel; in NCAA lingo, that’s an “improper benefit.” Yet, there’s no punishment for schools who may be putting a player’s long-term health at risk.

There’s more in the e-mails. (Nathan Fenno of the Washington Times and Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News, have followed the inner workings of these cases particularly closely.) In response, the NCAA, through a spokesperson, told the Associated Press that “student-athlete safety is one of the NCAA’s foundational principles. The NCAA has been at the forefront of safety issues throughout its existence.”

Lots of legal wrangling remains in both cases. Feldman senses settlements. “The NCAA is being sued for not paying college football players, while making light of the risks of playing college football,” he says. “The optics are bad, to say the least.”

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CORRECTION: Story updated to include reference to Vanderbilt linebacker also involved in the O’Bannon suit