Trending: Law Firm Aims to Become First to Represent College AthletesOctober 3, 2013
New York-based Winston & Strawn LLP is starting what it describes as the first college-focused division at a major law firm to represent players, coaches, schools and conferences against what Kessler, 59, described as “the unbridled power and influence” of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
An attorney named Jeff Kessler — who is credited with creating free agency in the NFL — is now about to spearhead an effort to give college players representation. For many, this is a move long overdue, given college sports/the NCAA is now collectively being paid more than $16 billion in TV contracts, according to Bloomberg.com’s piece.
Winston & Strawn LLP is the law firm (based in New York City) that will attempt to alter the relationship between the NCAA and its players — and also “coaches, schools and conferences.”
College athletes, past and present, are taking increasingly vocal, visible and litigious steps against what they consider to be unfair rules set by the NCAA, which doesn’t permit athletes to be paid. The agency faces lawsuits by former players that could seismically alter the sports landscape and, according to Steve Berman, managing partner of the Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, dissolve the 107-year-old governing body of college athletics.
“What’s at stake is a lot of money — and their survival,” said Berman, whose firm represents former University of Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA over the use of player likenesses in video games and promotions. “Sometimes it takes litigation to make social change.”
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said in an e-mail that the organization wouldn’t comment on Kessler or his firm’s entry into college sports.
Last week, Electronic Arts Inc. (EA), the second-largest U.S. video-game publisher, agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by former college athletes, including Keller and O’Bannon, over use of their likeness in video games, leaving the NCAA as the lone defendant.
The company canceled next year’s college football product, citing unsettled litigation between the plaintiffs and the NCAA, whose chief legal officer, Donald Remy, said on Sept. 26 the organization would take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court rather than settle, according to USA Today.
Marquette University Athletic Director Larry Williams said in a telephone interview he sided with Keller and O’Bannon.
“I do not think the NCAA should be trading on the image or likeness of any players,” he said yesterday. “If we’re requiring amateurism on one side, we should not be individually commercializing their image and likeness.”
Winston’s college group will be run by partner David Greenspan and associate Tim Nevius, who joined the firm from the NCAA, where he worked as an associate director of enforcement.
Kessler has represented the interests of athletes ranging from six-time NBA Most Valuable Player Michael Jordan to three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady. He has worked for the unions of all four major North American professional leagues, including McNeil v. the NFL, the 1992 case that produced the current system of free agency for players in the most popular U.S. sport, with $9.7 billion in annual revenue. The average annual NFL salary has risen to about $2 million from about $500,000 since then, according to the NFL Players Association.
Moody’s Investor Service said in June that it may downgrade $40 million of NCAA debt because of pending litigation and concern that the amateur business model will be changed in some unknown way.
“Even a casual observer of college sports senses a growing pressure on the NCAA and its policies,” Dennis Gephardt, lead analyst of the public finance group at Moody’s, said in a telephone interview.
“The intersection of all these cases and issues presents the NCAA with an opportunity to decide what kind of an organization it wants to be, and how it wants to manage sports going forward,” says Joseph Siprut, managing partner of Siprut PC, which represents plaintiffs in a 2011 concussion lawsuit. “It’s about whether these players are regarded as commodities that are chewed up and spit out, or as something more than that.”
More than 20 college football players, including quarterbacks Kain Colter of Northwestern and Vad Lee of Georgia Tech, took the field the weekend of Sept. 21 wearing the letters “APU” on their uniforms. The letters stand for “All Players United,” a show of unity initiated by the National Collegiate Players Association, an organization of it says are more than 14,000 current and former Division I athletes that wants improved scholarships, graduation rates and health and safety measures.
“Even though we compete every Saturday, we all need to come together for a greater cause,” Colter, a senior majoring in psychology, told reporters. “I’m not going to have any individual benefit from this. I’ll be gone after this year. This is for the younger guys all around the nation.”
Ramogi Huma said he started the group in 1997 while playing football for UCLA after the NCAA suspended his All-American teammate Donnie Edwards for accepting groceries when his scholarship money ran out at the end of the month. He said in a telephone interview that judges and juries are the only forces that will spur change for college athletes.
“The NCAA isn’t going to implement reform voluntarily,” Huma said. “Courts will be primary catalysts. Change is definitely coming.”