Federal judge blocks NCAA from enforcing NIL rules

A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked the NCAA from enforcing its bans against signing cash deals with booster teams.

The concept of amateurism has long been a fundamental principle of the NCAA, but Judge Clifton L. Corker said a lawsuit filed by attorneys general in Tennessee and Virginia has enough merit to prevent college sports' governing body from imposing any restrictions on signing opportunities. , agreements before joining the Image and Likeness (NIL) programs. The court order applies to all athletes in all states and is effective immediately.

The injunction is not the final verdict in the case, but the judge's decision is sure to open the floodgates for more people across the country to sign NIL agreements without fear of repercussions. Since NIL laws went into effect in various states in 2021, the NCAA has tried to protect and enforce its own policies, which limit the idea of ​​college athletes using NIL contracts to induce recruits to sign with a particular program. Payment should not be based on their athletic performance.

“The NCAA's ban violates federal antitrust law and harms student-athletes,” Corker wrote in his decision.

NCAA spokeswoman Saquandra Heath said in a statement that the judge's decision will greatly complicate the rules landscape for college sports.

“Overturning the rules, which are heavily supported by member schools, would worsen an already chaotic collegiate environment and reduce protections for student-athletes from exploitation,” Heath said. “The NCAA fully supports student-athletes monetizing their name, image and likeness and is making changes to provide greater benefits to student-athletes, but with the endless patchwork of state laws and court opinions, a clear partnership with Congress is necessary to provide stability for the future of all college athletes. .

NCAA rules currently allow registered athletes to sign NIL contracts as both individual boosters and collectives, which are groups of boosters who gather evidence before signing athletes to contracts. The NCAA does not allow prospective athletes — high school athletes or transfers — to sign such contracts, believing it to be a recruiting inducement.

On January 31, the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia jointly filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in a U.S. District Court. The lawsuit comes a day after news broke that the NCAA was investigating the recruiting practices of the University of Tennessee and Spire Sports Group — which is unofficially associated with Volunteers athletics — specifically around five-star prospect Niko Yamalewa, who ultimately committed to Tennessee in January 2023. .

Attorney Tom Mars, who worked with Tennessee Coot on the case, said the order's importance cannot be overstated.

“This is the first domino to fall, and what's happening with other pending antitrust cases now seems inevitable. NCAA attorneys should be aware of that,” Mars said.

The NCAA previously responded to the lawsuit by arguing that the states had no case to temporarily invalidate the NCAA rules because Tennessee's own state law prohibits NIL inducements in recruiting. The NCAA has also argued that the purpose of the NCAA court's injunctive relief is to preserve the status quo.

Earlier this month, Corker indicated that a temporary injunction was not necessary, but said the states were likely to win their case against the NCAA. Corker wrote in Friday's court order, “while the NCAA allows student-athletes to profit. From their NIL, the timing of a student-athlete entering into such a contract would defeat the goal of protecting amateurism.”

The judge agreed with the NCAA that maintaining competitive balance is a legitimate effort, but that antitrust law attempts to prevent NCAA-member schools from spreading competition evenly by “restricting trade” to “exactly the type of anticompetitive conduct.”

Friday's court order is another crack in the foundation of the NCAA, which has been fighting for its future on multiple fronts and countless courtrooms in a legal environment that is friendlier to its challengers than ever before.

Following a setback at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2021, the NCAA faced several lawsuits accusing the organization of violating federal antitrust laws. They are still working their way through various courts. The governing body for college sports also faced lawsuits challenging its rules separately.

In December, attorneys general for seven states, including Ohio, challenged an NCAA rule that bars athletes from playing immediately after multiple transfers. After obtaining a temporary injunction to prevent the NCAA from enforcing the rule, the NCAA agreed to change the injunction to a preliminary injunction, allowing all multi-time transfers to sit out the end of the academic year.

The NCAA is the subject of a complaint and unfair labor practice charge under the National Labor Relations Act, which raises the question of whether athletes should be classified as employees. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Los Angeles.

Friday's order creates an entirely new legal landscape in the recruiting space as NCAA lawyers continue to argue for the institution's long-standing business model. Athletes and their representatives can now sign contracts with collegiate teams without fear of an NCAA investigation or future loss of eligibility. While the preliminary injunction is temporary, it could lead to a dramatic increase in NIL contracts dangling in front of players on the transfer portal to force high school recruits and athletes to sign with a particular school. Before Friday, NCAA rules allowed coaches and affiliates to share information about a prospect's potential earnings, but could not sign contracts before they signed up. Not so anymore.

The NCAA has spent years trying to use its clout in the courts and state legislatures to lobby Congress for federal laws to protect how college sports are run. NCAA leaders want protections from antitrust investigations, uniformity in NIL laws and strict declarations that athletes are not employees. There have been numerous legislative proposals and double-digit hearings, but no bill has made it out of committee.

Several senators and representatives have said publicly that cleaning up the NCAA's mess is not a top priority.

(Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

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