NCAA and Northwestern University Hit with Antitrust Class-Action Lawsuit Over NCAA Transfer Rules

11/14/2016

Lawsuit calls NU’s behavior to force plaintiff to transfer “shady, dirty, and underhanded”

CHICAGO – A Division I student-athlete at Northwestern University (NU) filed an antitrust lawsuit against the university and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), claiming that the NCAA’s transfer regulations violate federal antitrust laws, following intimidation tactics from NU in an attempt to force the plaintiff to transfer schools, according to Hagens Berman.

The plaintiff, John “Johnnie” Vassar, was a men’s basketball player who joined Northwestern during the 2014-2015 academic year, and states that the transfer rules established by the NCAA and carried out by Northwestern, “restrict the freedom of student athletes in violation of antitrust law.” After accepting an athletic scholarship to Northwestern, Johnnie was subjected to a variety of efforts from the university to transfer and to take away his athletic scholarship, including verbal harassment, falsified records of misconduct and more.

“In a competitive market free of the NCAA and its members restraint, these athletes would be allowed to transfer without restriction, particularly where, as in this case, their current coach no longer wants their services and ‘runs them off,’” the complaint states.

The suit filed Nov. 14, 2016, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division seeks to change the NCAA’s current rules preventing Division I basketball players from transferring to other NCAA Division I schools and playing immediately without losing athletic eligibility for a year.

“We see this destructive double-standard again and again – non-student-athletes are free to transfer and are eligible for a new scholarship without waiting a year. Coaches often transfer to the tune of a hefty pay raise,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman and lead attorney representing the class of athletes. “But meanwhile, student-athletes are penalized and forced to sit out a year before they can play elsewhere. The NCAA needs to level the playing field for these thousands of kids who face undue punishment under its senseless bylaws.”

Johnnie dreamed of playing professional basketball after graduation. He was heavily recruited by colleges out of high school and offered athletic scholarships by numerous NCAA Division I men’s basketball schools.

In 2014, Johnnie joined Northwestern on a full multi-year basketball grant-in-aid that guaranteed him a scholarship during the entire period of his eligibility, but in 2015, Northwestern told him he would no longer have a spot on the basketball team. The lawsuit alleges that Northwestern engaged in deceitful behavior over the course of a year in order to secure Johnnie’s athletic scholarship so the school could provide it to another player, given the Northwestern-agreed and NCAA-imposed 13-scholarship limit.

By 2016, he was informed that his basketball grant-in-aid would be converted to an academic scholarship in order to release him as a “counter” and by May 5, 2016, Northwestern University freed up the guaranteed multi-year athletic scholarship that it had initially provided him as the sweetener to get him to join the school’s academic and basketball programs, according to the complaint.

“Shady, dirty, and underhanded” Behavior

The suit states that NU staff berated the nationally recruited basketball player and put Johnnie in an “internship” under which he worked as a janitor instead of permitting him to train and play with his teammates. The school also pressured him to sign a blank “Roster Deletion” form by which he would be “voluntarily withdrawing” from the team, the suit states, even though Johnnie did not want to leave Northwestern.

The complaint also alleges that unknown individuals within Northwestern falsified timecards in an attempt to create misconduct as grounds for taking away Johnnie’s athletic scholarship (going so far as to even misspell his name on one such timecard), and even asked about his willingness to accept a cash payment to “go away,” among other things.

Amid Northwestern’s tactics, Johnnie reached out to multiple Division I basketball programs and received uniform responses:  they would bring Johnnie onto their program if he could play right away, according to the lawsuit. Because Johnnie could not play right away due to the anticompetitive rules, the schools would not accept him.

“This case is a prime example of the catch-22 that student-athletes are forced into,” Berman said. “And while NCAA-member universities play fast and loose with the readily available athletic talent they recruit, there are real futures on the line, and real student-athletes are suffering because of these systemic, overbearing regulations that take away their options.”

The suit states that Johnnie no longer has an athletic scholarship and no longer plays Division I basketball. Instead of pursuing his dream of playing professional basketball after graduation, he is forced to train on his own in an effort to keep up his skills honed through years of competitive basketball.   

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About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with offices in 10 cities. The firm has been named to the National Law Journal’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List eight times. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.

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