Alston v. NCAA Featuring Judge Claudia Wilken: What’s Next for College Athletics?
Currently the most influential person in all of collegiate athletics is someone (for all intents and purposes) that many fans do not know. This person is not a University President, Conference Commissioner, Coach, or Student-Athlete. In fact, until recent years, this person had not had anything to do with college sports. In 2014, however, her impact was such that ESPN did a story on her [ESPN Story], and it seems prudent to revisit her powerful role now and for the future of college sports. I am talking of course about Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Claudia Wilken.
In 2014, Judge Wilken was the judge who issued the ruling against the NCAA in O’Bannon v. NCAA; stating that the NCAA did violate the Sherman Antitrust Act by prohibiting the member institutions from sharing the revenues earned by using the name, image, and likeness of the student-athletes. You may have noticed that companies like EA Sports ceased production of popular video games such as NCAA College Football and NCAA College Basketball. The halting of these video games was a direct effect of Judge Wilken’s decision in the O’Bannon case.
As fate would have it, four years after her ruling on the O’Bannon case, District Judge Claudia Wilken is presiding over another high-profile case, which could forever change college athletics. She has been hearing the case Alston v. NCAA in which former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston and former Cal women’s basketball center Justine Hartman brought a class action lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of former men’s and women’s college athletes in 11 athletic conferences.
Simply stated, Alston and Hartman assert that the NCAA’s cap of the value for athletic scholarships is unlawful because it prevents conferences and member institutions from competing with each. The NCAA asserts that these claims are baseless under the law but also damaging to college sports, effectively changing college sports into a form of the minor (or developmental) leagues [SI Article].
On December 18, 2018, Judge Wilken heard the final arguments from both the plaintiffs and defendants. She listened to another three hours of testimony before concluding the hearings [Alston Hearing]. Judge Wilken will likely render her final ruling at a later date, and regardless of what position you support, the outcome will undoubtedly change college athletics. There are numerous ways in which this case could end (i.e. abolish the NCAA pay restrictions; adjust the NCAA perspective on pay-for-pay; rule in favor of the defendants, etc.) and those who are leading organizations need to be ready to adapt.
College athletic departments that are able to adapt to the changes handed down from the federal courts will thrive. Continued legal challenges have made it quite clear that to be leaders in this field, departments will have to push harder to think outside the box and challenge conventional wisdom.
This case will almost surely go to the U.S. Supreme Court regardless of the decision rendered, and those nine Justices will have the chance to weigh in. Until Judge Wilken makes her ruling, and the case passes the appeals process, the future of college athletics will hang in the balance. This should be the perfect time for departments to begin ensuring that they are ready for any ruilng that may come.