Intentional Grounding: How The NCAA And NFL Have Engaged In Practices That Unreasonably Restrain The Football Player Labor Market

Stephen Ayeni

Young athletes often dream of becoming the next star in their respective sports.  A selective few go on to realize that dream, and become professional athletes.[1]  Within this group of superb athletes are a rare few who almost seem as though they were “meant for the game”, showing flashes of greatness at a young age.  NBA superstar, LeBron James, was being touted as an elite player, drawing comparisons to all-time great, Kobe Bryant, despite still being a high school junior.[2]  Although the NBA has since amended its draft eligibility, the delay in going professional post-high school is limited to one year. There still remains the possibility of basketball players profiting financially from their abilities immediately after high school graduation, while foregoing college.[3] 

            Baseball prospects are afforded an opportunity to enter the professional ranks, becoming draft eligible, immediately upon high school graduation. Similarly, the NHL allows players aged eighteen or older, to enter the draft.

            Unlike these sports leagues, the NFL imposes a draft eligibility requirement stipulating that a prospective player be at least three years removed from high school. Furthermore, these prospects are not afforded a realistic interim alternative to college, that produces a monetary benefit.[4]  Essentially, the only legitimate path to becoming a professional football player, begins by playing at the collegiate level. The problem arising from the disparity between the NFL draft eligibility requirements in comparison to the other “Big Four” American sports leagues, is magnified by the average career spans of each sport’s athletes. Professional football players in the NFL have the shortest career spans in comparison to players in the NBA, NHL, and MLB.[5]  As of 2013, NFL players average a full year less than the average NBA player, and two years less than NHL and MLB players.[6]  Additionally, the NFL provides the lowest average player salary of the four major sports.[7]  This results in the lowest average potential earnings, in what has been documented as an extremely violent sport, that could potentially have dangerous long-term health effects.[8] 

            Due to these draft eligibility restrictions, football prospects are forced to attend college in an attempt to showcase their talents to prospective employers in the NFL.  Under the NCAA guidelines, these colleges essentially operate as a de facto farm system that guarantees the maturation and development of players, at no cost to the NFL.[9]  There are some players that have been viewed as NFL-ready once they graduated from high school.[10]  However, they are subjected to the threat of an injury that could negatively affect or entirely eliminate their earning potential due to the restrictive practices instituted by the NFL and NCAA.[11]  Despite the talents of a top prospect, an injury could potentially shrink the market for their services, as teams will be less willing to invest millions into a player who may never fully recover.[12]

            While in college, a football player is considered an ‘amateur student-athlete.’[13]  The NCAA operates as a non-profit organization that promotes the academic and overall well-being of the student-athlete.[14] Notwithstanding the threat of injury, a college football player must submit to the strict compensation restrictions imposed by the NCAA.[15]  A player who receives compensation for their athletic abilities or violates other provisions within the by-laws may be deemed ineligible to participate in all collegiate sports.[16]  Since playing college football serves as the sole realistic option to obtaining employment for their athletic abilities, athletes are forced to accept a free education as compensation, without protest.  Furthermore, they must refrain from receiving any compensation that may be attributed to their athletic abilities.[17]  This restriction enables only the conference and school which the player attends, to benefit financially from their talents.[18]  Although the NCAA prides itself on protecting the ‘student’ aspect of the ‘student-athlete’ label for college football players, it has hypocritically committed an act that the organization was originally founded to protect against: exploitive athletic practices. It is no secret that college football is a massive source of revenue for schools. However, these schools are operating under the guise of the NCAA’s core values, enabling them use of unfair bargaining power to obtain the services of football players, without fair compensation. On average, college football players are less prepared academically to succeed in the classroom.[19]  If they are not able to maintain a certain grade point average they may not only lose their scholarship, but also their ability to obtain employment in the NFL. There are similarities between a development league like the MLB minor league system and the college ranks of football. The most notable is the ability to develop talent to play at a professional level. However, a minor league prospect is able to simultaneously hone their skills while benefitting financially from these same talents, whereas a college football player must endure at least three years of schooling prior to an opportunity to be compensated financially for their athletic prowess.  Some student-athletes benefit from the education received from this arrangement.  However, a substantial amount of college football players enter college with the sole intentions of going to the NFL, without obtaining a college degree.[20]

The Sherman Act states that “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with the foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.”[21]  While the broad language of the Sherman Act, may encompass almost any contract, the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that the Act “intended to prohibit only unreasonable restraints of trade.”[22] 

            This article will analyze how antitrust laws has affected previous sports related litigation. It will explain the rule of reason, a test courts use to determine whether certain conduct falls within the purview of antitrust scrutiny.  Subsequently, it will apply the rule of reason to the deceptive practices engaged by the NFL and NCAA, revealing unreasonable labor market restrictions whilst debunking the previous litigation defenses used by both entities.


[1].              NCAA, 2016 Probability of Competing Beyond High School Figures and Methodology, NCAA.org, (last updated May 2, 2016), http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/2016RES_Probability-Chart-Web-PDF_20160502.pdf.
[2].              Grant Wahl, Ahead of His Class, Sports Illustrated Feb. 18, 2002, at 62, http://www.si.com/vault/2002/02/18/318739/ahead-of-his-class-ohio-high-school-junior-lebron-james-is-so-good-that-hes-already-being-mentioned-as-the-heir-to-air-jordan.
[3].              Pete Thamel, At 19, Plotting New Path to N.B.A., via Europe, N.Y. Times (Oct. 4, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/sports/basketball/05jennings.html?_r=0.
[4].              Arena Football One, LLC & Arena Football League Players Union, Collective Bargaining Agreement 13 (2012), http://grfx.cstv.com/photos/schools/afl/sports/a-footbl/auto_pdf/2013-14/misc_non_event/collective_bargaining_agreemen.pdf; see also CFL Adjusts Eligibility Rules for Draft, Canadian Football League (Sept. 6, 2013), http://www.cfl.ca/2013/09/06/cfl-adjusts-eligibility-rules-for-draft/. The CFL has more stringent eligibility standards than the NFL, requiring players to be hail from a Canadian school—CIS is the Canadian equivalent of NCAA—or having non-import status.  Id.
[5].              Nick Schwartz, The Average Career Earnings of Athletes Across America's Major Sports Will Shock You, USA Today: For The Win (Oct. 24, 2013 10:07 am), http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/10/average-career-earnings-nfl-nba-mlb-nhl-mls.
[6].              Id.
[7].              Id.
[8].              See e.g. Jason M. Breslow, New: 87 Deceased NFL Players Test Positive for Brain Disease, PBS: Frontline (Sept. 18, 2015), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/new-87-deceased-nfl-players-test-positive-for-brain-disease/. In a recent study about 87 out of 91 players tested positive for brain disease CTE.  Id.
[9].              John Underwood, Does Herschel Have Georgia On His Mind?, Sports Illustrated, Mar. 1, 1982 at 22, http://www.si.com/vault/1982/03/01/564787/does-herschel-have-georgia-on-his-mind.
[10].            Skip Bayless, Clarett Belonged in the NFL, ESPN.com: Page 2 (Aug. 11, 2006), http://espn.go.com/espn/print?id=2546577&type=story; Jeff Legwold, Adrian Peterson Among Few Who Could Make Leap from High School to NFL, ESPN.com: NFL Nation (Oct. 2, 2015), http://espn.go.com/blog/nflnation/print?id=182078.
[11].            See Mark Viera, Rutgers Player Is Paralyzed Below the Neck, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2010), http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/18/sports/ncaafootball/18rutgers.html?_r=0.
[12].            See John Harris, 2016 NFL Draft: Injury Crushes Draft Stock of Notre Dame LB Jaylon Smith, Wash. Post (Feb. 29), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2016/02/29/2016-nfl-draft-injury-crushes-draft-stock-of-notre-dame-lb-jaylon-smith/.
[13].            NCAA, 2009-10 NCAA Division I Manual 61-75 (2009), http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D110.pdf.
[14].            Finances, NCAA, http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/finances (last visited July 26, 2016). 
[15].            Manual, supra note 13.
[16].            Id.
[17].            Id.
[18].            See Kristi Dosh, College Football Playoff: Conference Payouts, Bus. C. Sports (Dec. 8, 2014), http://businessofcollegesports.com/2014/12/08/college-football-playoff-conference-payouts/. Over $50 million in revenue was distributed to each Power 5 conference for the 2014-15 bowl season. Id.
[19].            Doug Lederman, The Admissions Gap for Big-Time Athletes, Inside Higher Ed (Dec. 29, 2008), https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/12/29/admit. “[C]ritics tend to argue that the colleges are doing a disservice to athletes who come in underprepared, and suggest that colleges may be achieving those higher graduation rates, in part, by directing athletes into less demanding academic programs . . . .”  Id.
[20].            Christopher Bogan, 41% in NFL Graduate from College: Rate in Pacific 10 Conference Only 38%, Report Shows, L.A. Times (Jan 26, 1986), http://articles.latimes.com/print/1986-01-27/sports/sp-719_1_graduation-rate.
[21].            15 U.S.C. § 1 (2012).
[22].            E.g. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n v. Bd. of Regents, 468 U.S. 85, 98 (1984). 

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