Let’s just come right out and say it: the National Collegiate Athletic Association is not popular. Whether it’s the way it enforces its litany of rules or the arbitrary way it hands out penalties, virtually every college sports fan has found something to dislike about the organization over the years. So when a player or a coach or a business takes special exception to something the organization did and decides to sue (as happens fairly frequently), most of us don’t have to think very long about which side we’re rooting for. These are 10 of the biggest cases where the NCAA was hauled (or hauled someone else) into court.
- Law v. NCAA:
Financially, one of the most painful slaps on the NCAA’s wrist by the court system came via a fight over the so-called “restricted earnings” rule. Nearly all Division I schools had voted in 1991 to limit coaching assistants’ salaries to a max of $16,000 a year (because, really, who cares about them?). A Kansas District Court decided the rule violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and a federal jury ordered the NCAA to pay the coaches in the class-action suit $22.3 million, which was immediately tripled to $67 million because it involved antitrust law. Two years after the ruling, coaches were still waiting on their checks. In 2009 the whole thing was settled for $54 million; hopefully the coaches have gotten their money by now.
- NCAA v. Tarkanian:
Jerry Tarkanian is one of the winningest coaches in the history of college sports, going 706-198 in men’s basketball. Against the NCAA, his record is a more modest 1-1. In 1972, the NCAA found Tarkanian’s school, UNLV, to have committed nearly 40 infractions, including 10 by Tarkanian himself. The Association leaned on UNLV to suspend Tarkanian, which it did, so he sued both of them. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided in a 5-4 vote that the NCAA had not violated his right to due process and, in a significant move, ruled the NCAA was not a “state actor” and thus does not have to grant members due process. But it all worked out for Tarkanian in the end: he sued the NCAA for 20-odd years of harassment and won a$2.5 million settlement.
- O’Bannon v. NCAA:
Currently in its third year, this case could very well end with hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands. In July 2009, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA and the CLC, the Collegiate Licensing Company, claiming the two have been using his and countless other current and former players’ likenesses to rake in an estimated $4.5 billion a year. Later O’Bannon widened the net to include video game maker Electronic Arts Inc., popularly known as EA Sports. NBA Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell has joined the list of athletes, and on the other side, the SEC, SWAC, the Big Ten Network, and Fox have all been pulled in to the case in varying degrees.
- White v. NCAA:
Back before college athletes made ends meet by selling autographed jerseys or living in mansions rent-free thanks to donors, they could actually leave school in debt. The NCAA banned athletic scholarships that covered the full cost of tuition, meaning students were on the hook for bills and expenses. In 2006, former football players Jason White of Stanford and Brian Polak of UCLA led a class-action suit alleging the ban violated antitrust law. The NCAA agreed to a settlement that made $218 million available to student athletes for those expenses through the end of the 2012-2013 seasons and allowed schools to give their athletes health care coverage.
- Intersport, Inc. v NCAA:
It’s a pretty well-known fact that just as with the phrase “Super Bowl,” advertisers have to steer clear of using the phrase “March Madness.” After all, the NCAA paid darn good money for it. Marketing company Intersport had trademarked the phrase in 1989, despite the NCAA’s claim it owned it because broadcaster Brent Musburger had uttered the words “March Madness” on TV in 1982. They wanted to use the phrase in a deal with Sprint, which of course the NCAA was not OK with. Intersport sued and won, so the NCAA broke out its wallet. Just over $17 million later, the phrase is all theirs.
- George v. NCAA:
Apparently not even the courts could agree on whether the way the NCAA handled ticket purchases constituted an illegal lottery. College sports fans were required to submit applications for the right to buy tickets, which had to include the full price of the tickets requested plus a non-refundable “entry fee” (according to the plaintiffs) or “handling fee” (according to the NCAA). Sports fan Tom George of Arizona brought the class-action cause in 2008, saying the system was a lottery because fans were paying to play and the “prizes” were scarce and worth more than their face value. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2009, and an appeals court reversed that dismissal and kicked the case up to the Supreme Court of Indiana. Their ruling? Tickets aren’t prizes. No prizes, no lottery.
- Rick Neuheisel v. University of Washington and NCAA:
Wisely, the NCAA and the University of Washington opted to throw some money at this case before it got to a jury, where they would have had to pay a lot of money. Huskies football coach Rick Neuheisel’s 33-16 record was not enough to keep him from being fired by the school for gambling on March Madness and lying about it to NCAA investigators. He sued both groups over the firing, and in the trial it emerged that NCAA henchmen had broken their own rules concerning such investigations, neglecting to inform Neuheisel that he was going to be questioned about the gambling. The ensuing $4.5 million settlement vindicated the coach and kept the school and the NCAA from forking over an estimated $16 million he was due.
- Kansas v. NCAA:
Eight years before Tom George got fed up with paying fees for tickets he never saw, the state treasurer of Kansas had a bone to pick with the NCAA over similar circumstances. Sports fans in Kansas had been sending checks to the NCAA for a chance to win tickets to the Final Four. Because of incorrect return addresses, the NCAA was unable to reach thousands of people with their money. So they just pocketed it. And they didn’t even try to deny they’d pocketed it, despite Kansas law requiring them to deposit it into the Kansas Unclaimed Property Division. The ensuing lawsuit was not over whether the Association owed money, but how much. What the state originally said was $1.8 million was ultimately settled for about $650,000.
- UND v. NCAA:
You almost have to feel sorry for the NCAA for getting involved in this sticky case. In 2005, the Executive Committee decided it would not allow schools with “hostile or abusive racial nicknames or imagery” at NCAA championships. Right in their targets: the University of North Dakota “Fighting Sioux.” UND responded by suing the NCAA, but the two settled by agreeing that the school would drop the nickname by Aug. 15, 2011 if it did not get approval from the two Sioux tribes in North Dakota to keep it. The Spirit Lake Sioux said keep it; the Standing Rock Sioux said kill it. Skip to early 2011: the state legislature passes a law requiring the school to keep the name. Six American Indian students sued the state. The Spirit Lake Sioux sued the NCAA, lost, and appealed. Finally, just this June, the state let voters decide, and they elected to nix the name. Case closed … or is it?
- Arrington v. NCAA:
This one is still in the preliminary stages, but its potential consequences make it safe to call it one of the biggest lawsuits to ever darken the NCAA’s doorstep. Four former college athletes, including the titular Adrian Arrington of Eastern Illinois University, have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the NCAA’s failure to protect players from concussions caused them to experience brain injuries. The NCAA has been characteristically dismissive of the suit, calling it “misguided and off base.” They’d better hope so: the medical monitoring for all college athletes past and present the suit is seeking would cost the NCAA hundreds of millions of dollars, and some believe this is just the first of many such lawsuits to come.