In this second installment of previewing 2021, I take a look at some of the compelling storylines to follow in the world of sports litigation. As trials now occur virtually, several ongoing disputes are expected to reach resolutions this year, including a six year-old lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which will fundamentally rearrange the way college athletes are “defined” and compensated. Let’s take a look at what is on the docket to be decided this year.
NCAA v. Alston
For fans of EA Sports’ NCAA Football, the dream of the beloved video game making a comeback has become a reality following a surprise announcement last week. O’Bannon v. NCAA, a class action lawsuit against the NCAA, Collegiate Licensing Company, and video game publisher Electronic Arts, brought an end to the game franchise in 2014 when college players sued over the unauthorized use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). A $60 million settlement ended the dispute — and with it — any NIL-related profit opportunities for college players, such as broadcast rights and merchandising. Rather than simply license NIL rights with college athletes, all profiting parties were forced to abandon these lucrative areas of college sports, stemming from the NCAA regulations prohibiting athletes receiving outside compensation. This concept had become known as amateurism. Amateurism has prevented college athletes from profiting from their NIL.
This is just a snippet of the NCAA’s long battle against its athletes and their authority over NIL rights, however a new chapter may be on the horizon. The relevant lawsuit, NCAA v. Alston, is a years-old case that will be making its way to the Supreme Court. Following the Ninth Circuit’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs, the NCAA’s petition for certiorari was granted, meaning the Supreme Court will hear the case and make a final ruling. If the Supreme Court affirms the Ninth Circuit’s judgment, the NCAA rules restricting education-related pay and benefits for college athletes will be stricken down. However, if the Supreme Court goes a different route, a win for the NCAA may essentially grant antitrust immunity to the organization, which would allow it generous latitude in terms of what changes — if any — the NCAA would make to its current compensation structure. The debate over amateurism will take place on March 31st, and regardless of outcome, will have permanent, far-reaching consequences for the future of college sports.
Jeffery Kessler, head attorney at Winston Strawn LLP, will be arguing on behalf of Alston and college athletes as a whole, while the NCAA and its athletic conferences will be represented by a plethora of law firms.
Bryant v. Island Express Helicopters Inc.
Little more than a year ago, the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers crashed, tragically resulting in the deaths of everyone on board. Many of the details are well-known at this point: despite traveling the same route to a girl’s basketball tournament 24 hours earlier, pilot Ara Zobayan became disoriented in the heavy fog that hung over the Calabasas hillside that day and misperceived the helicopter’s final plunge, apparently believing that they were climbing to four-thousand feet shortly before impact. However, what still remains to be determined is the outcome of the litigation against Island Express, Zobayan’s employer and the owner of the helicopter.
Vanessa Bryant, the widow of the Lakers’ legend, brought suit against the helicopter company and Zobayan on twenty-eight counts alleging negligence resulting in the wrongful deaths of the passengers. Island Express attempted to cross-claim the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging that the air traffic controllers had negligently handled a shift change that occurred during the flight, according to Law360. Both Bryant and the federal government have filed a motion to dismiss, which — if granted — would remand the case from federal court to Los Angeles Superior Court, where Bryant is more likely to find a favorable verdict if the case goes to trial. However, both sides must first await the investigation results of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). These findings will determine if the crash was due to a mechanical failure or human error, as previously suspected. The NTSB is expected to announce the release of its report tomorrow on Tuesday, February 9th via livestream.
Vanessa Bryant is represented by Munger, Tolles & Olsen LLP and Robb & Robb LLC. Island Express is represented by Cunningham Swaim LLP and Worthe Hanson & Worthe. The federal government is represented by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California and U.S. Department of Justice
Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball
The Minor League (MiLB) system of Major League Baseball (MLB) has been a lightning rod of controversy over the past year following the MLB’s decision to cut the number of minor league teams from 162 to 120 — or one affiliate per MLB team for each of the four “levels” of MiLB. Commissioner Rob Manfred has faced backlash from minor league team executives and Congress alike. However, it seems that the MLB’s “120 Plan” not-so-coincidentally comes at a time where the league awaits a verdict on a class action lawsuit that would make the operation of the Minors Leagues exponentially more expensive. Enter Senne v. Royals.
Seven years ago, former minor leaguer Aaron Senne filed a lawsuit against the Kansas City Royals. The litigation has since expanded to include thousands of players — past and present — who are alleging that they have received unlawfully low wages from MLB for their services. These claims include zero compensation for spring training as well as its fall counterpart, both of which are reportedly “strongly implied” to be mandatory. Further, some players even claim to have made as little as $1,100 per month during the five-month regular season, which, assuming a minimum forty-hour workweek, would make their hourly wage $6.875. Of course, this figure falls well below the $7.25 federal minimum wage; however the MLB may already be shielded from this apparent discrepancy.
Hidden on page 1,967 (of 2,232 total) of Congress’s 2018 $1.3 trillion spending bill, the “Save America’s Pastime Act” essentially exempts minor league players from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This legislation meant that minor league players could no longer receive overtime, nor payment for spring training, rendering minor leaguers “seasonal employees” by default. There are many other considerations that fill out this complicated picture, but in short, the MLB’s lobbying for these provisions may signal that the MLB is not expecting the court to rule in its favor. Hence, why eliminating 42 teams – or roughly one-thousand players – will mitigate some of the blow the MLB will face if it loses this case.
The MLB petitioned the Supreme Court to reject the class action on the basis that the claims lacked commonality; however the land’s highest court declined to hear the case. Therefore, the lawsuit will proceed in the Ninth Circuit where Judge Joseph C. Spero has tentatively scheduled a trial for June 2022. However, allowing such an expensive (and contentious) lawsuit to reach trial may threaten the MLB’s most valuable commodity: its antitrust exemption. While a settlement appears unlikely, all eyes are on the league as it prepares for its next move.