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Vassar v. NCAA and Northwestern University: Antitrust Suit on Transfer Restrictions

On November 14, 2016, Johnnie Vassar (“Johnnie”), a former point guard at Northwestern University (“Northwestern”), filed suit against the NCAA and Northwestern. In the suit, Johnnie alleges that Northwestern improperly removed him from athletics aid and placed him on general aid and NCAA transfer regulations for basketball student-athletes violate antitrust laws.

Johnnie was a top recruit who was offered and agreed to accept a multi-year full grant-in-aid to attend Northwestern over the period 2014-15 through 2017-18 academic years. Following his freshman year at Northwestern, Johnnie alleges that Northwestern sought to “run him off” of the men’s basketball team and remove his scholarship. Specifically, Johnnie alleges that Northwestern engaged in a “shady, dirty, and underhanded pattern of behavior” in which the institution:

1. “Berated the nationally-recruited, skilled basketball player, telling him, via the team’s head coach, Chris Collins, that he ‘sucked’ at basketball and had no future with the team;

2. Called him in to the athletics offices under the guise that he was to pick up a request to contact form (a preliminary step to starting the transfer process) but instead pressured him to sign a blank “Roster Deletion” form by which Johnnie would be ‘voluntarily withdrawing (quitting)’ the team;

3. Put him in an ‘internship’ under which he worked as a janitor instead of permitting him to train and play with his teammates;

4. Asked about Johnnie’s willingness to accept a cash payment to go away;

5. Told Johnnie that his attorney had signed off on a Northwestern-proposed effort to resolve Johnnie’s objections about Northwestern’s actions when no such sign off had occurred and then denied the conversation even happened, and

6. Falsified ‘internship’ timecards in an attempt to create misconduct by Johnnie as a ground for taking away the athletic scholarship.

Johnnie argued that if he gave into “the school’s campaign of verbal abuse and pressure and agreed to transfer schools (though he did not want to transfer from Northwestern), he could not because of the NCAA’s anticompetitive rules that bar players like Johnnie from transferring schools without sitting out of play.” Accordingly, this suit challenges the NCAA rules that “prevent Division I basketball players from transferring to other NCAA Division I schools and (1) playing immediately (2) without losing athletic eligibility for a year.”

Johnnie sets forth claims under Section 1 of the Sherman Act and presents a nationwide market for the labor of Division I basketball student athletes. “In this labor market, student-athletes compete for spots on Division I basketball athletic teams of NCAA member institutions, and NCAA member institutions compete for the best Division I basketball collegiate student athletes by paying in-kind benefits, namely, Division I basketball grants-in-aid, academic programs, access to training facilities, and instruction from premier coaches.” Johnnie further claims and argues that such restrictions represent unlawful agreements not to compete in terms of price or output and constitute a naked restraint of trade and commerce.

The suit seeks to certify a class of similarly situated individuals. The proposed classes are the “Transfer Injunctive Relief Class,” which is comprised of “[a]ll individuals who, from November 10, 2012, to the present, have been a member of an NCAA Division I basketball team” and the “Transfer Core Issues Class,” which is comprised of “[a]ll individuals who, from November 10, 2012, to the present, have sought to transfer from one NCAA Division I basketball school to another NCAA Division I basketball school, and pursuant to NCAA transfer rules, were considered to be, or would have been considered to be, athletically ineligible to participate in NCAA Division I athletics for any period of time.”

Johnnie also sets for breach of contract and promissory estoppel causes of action against Northwestern for the removal of his athletics aid and converting him to general aid, which he argues required him to extend funds that were available under his athletics aid, but not available under his general aid.

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