WME, ESPN & Networks Hit With Class Action Lawsuit From College Football & Basketball Players

By Dominic Patten, David Lieberman

The college athletics playing field could soon see a big bucks stand off. Ten college football and basketball players filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in Tennessee last week seeking a big piece of the television money pie from ESPN, ABC, Fox, CBS, NBC as well as WME and IMG and more.

The networks and others “have profited from the broadcast and use of Student Athletes’ names, likenesses and images without the Student Athletes’ permission,” says the 40-page filing of October 3 (read it here). The plaintiffs want a jury trial — and a potential judgement requiring the defendants to “disgorge all profits” from the arrangements, which could reach billions of dollars. Although the student athletes sign releases, they are “forced to sign as a condition of playing football or basketball in college” and should be voided “as a matter of  public policy” and because they are “vague, and therefore void and/or unenforceable.”

The arrangements between the broadcasters and NCAA as well as others that license the programming have “created a marketplace resembling a plantation type arrangement where Defendants financially benefit in the collective amount of billions of dollars, while Student Athletes, the driving force of college sports, receive nothing more than their cost of attendance,” the suit says. It charges that the current system violates the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Lanham (Trademark) Act, and Tennessee laws.

The suit comes in the midst of a growing debate over whether college athletes should be paid. In August U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that, beginning in August 2015, the NCAA can’t enforce rules that prevent member schools and conferences from offering student athletes “a limited share of the revenues generated from the use of their names, images and likenesses in addition to a full grant-in-aid.” The injunction said that the NCAA could cap the payments, but not below the cost of attendance. The ruling rejected the NCAA’s argument that it wanted to protect the “revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.” Both sides have appealed the decision.

The National College Players Association estimates that the fair market value of the average NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision football player is $121,048, and basketball players are worth $265,027. Some are worth much more: For example, Duke basketball players potentially could earn $1,025,656 — but lived $732 above the poverty line, in part because scholarships didn’t pay the full freight.

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