Walk-on Football Players Fight NCAA Scholarship Restraints

SEATTLE – A former NCAA Division I-A football player yesterday filed a class action complaint claiming the NCAA's cost-cutting scholarship restrictions exploit walk-on players who make up nearly a third of Division I-A college football rosters around the nation. The proposed class would cover thousands of walk-on players who did not receive scholarships as a result of what the lawsuit alleges is an illegal restraint on the number of scholarships that can be offered.

Filed in Western Washington District Court in Seattle, the suit calls into question the NCAA's decade-long agreement to restrict the number of Division I-A football scholarships to players while member colleges receive tens of millions of dollars in revenue from football programs, and spend huge sums on coaching salaries, stadiums and other related areas.

If granted class certification, the suit will represent all players not receiving scholarships who were on football rosters of NCAA Division I-A schools during the past four years.

"Any football coach will tell you that walk-ons represent the backbone of every team," said Steve Berman, the lead attorney representing players denied scholarships. "The core contention is that the NCAA and its members, by agreeing to restrict the number of scholarships, violated our nation's antitrust laws, which expressly prohibit this type of restraint."

The complaint alleges that absent the illegal restraint, Division I-A schools would have competed for these players by offering them scholarships. Berman noted that, by 2000, absent this restraint and in a free and open competitive market, "we allege that virtually all Division I-A schools would have had full rosters of scholarship players." The complaint also alleges that the restraint has an impact on poorer students, who may not be able to attend a Division I-A school without scholarships available for walk-ons.

The suit argues that, in a cartel-like practice, the NCAA reduced the number of scholarships a school can offer as a way to reduce expenses and maximize the profitability of the programs at the detriment of the student athletes.

Prior to 1977, schools were permitted to offer as many scholarships as they deemed appropriate, but today the NCAA limits the number to 85, the suit states. The average number of players on a roster of a typical Division I-A football team is 117.

The projected cost of adding an additional 32 scholarships is very small compared to the amount of excess revenue generated by an average Division I-A football team, according to the suit. Scholarships for all roster players would cost an estimated $600,000 per school, while the average Division I-A football team earns nearly $5 million in excess revenue, the suit states.

Andy Carroll, the named plaintiff in the suit, earned a position on the University of Washington football roster for the 1996-2000 seasons, playing wide receiver and a special teams position, and graduating in 2000. Even though many smaller schools recruited him, Carroll chose the University of Washington because of its Division I-A status.

"When I began my football career at UW, I was also led to believe that if I played hard and played during the regular season in games, I had a shot at a scholarship," said Carroll. "After my junior year when I had been playing in games I asked about a scholarship and I was told none were available due to the scholarship restrictions."

Sim Osborn, co-counsel in the case, stated that many young and impressionable college players have a similar experience, with colleges depending on walk-ons' reverent devotion to football to drive successful programs.

"Stadiums don't sweat through two-a-day practices. Coaches with million dollar salaries don't run hours of wind sprints," said Berman. "We intend to prove that the NCAA and its affiliated colleges exploit hardworking players while encouraging colleges to spend on superficial adornments."

The complaint describes the extravagant expansions at colleges such as the University of Oregon, where the football program recently spent $3.2 million to update the locker room with features like three 60-inch plasma televisions and self-contained ventilation systems in each locker to control moisture.

Walk-ons practice just as long and hard as their scholarship-sponsored counterparts. An average of 20 hours per week are spent on practices where they may play small but key roles on special teams or run plays used by opponents, the complaint states. On top of this, walk-ons often devote more time to weight lifting, game film review, and scout book and playbook review sessions, according to the complaint.

Division I-A college football generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the NCAA and its participating institutions. According to figures published by the NCAA, postseason college football alone generated over $227 million in total revenues last year, and distributed $181 million to affiliated colleges. On average, every Division I-A school received $10.92 million in NCAA revenue from its football program, and typically received millions more from stadium ticket sales, licensed merchandise, and other revenue streams related to the football team.

The suit seeks an end to the NCAA rule on number of scholarships awarded in Division I-A football, and damages for football walk-ons who were harmed by this policy.

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