New Lawsuit Addresses Eligibility Concerns for US Collegiate Athletes
Monday, November 27, 2023

It has been over two years since the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) lifted its prohibition on college athletes being able to profit from their name, image, and likeness (“NIL”). When people traditionally think of NIL, they think of student athletes at the collegiate level receiving payment for their likeness. However, collegiate athletes are not the only student athletes able to avail themselves of the burgeoning world of NIL.

To date, thirty-three states have enacted some form of legislation or executive order permitting high school athletes to profit from their NIL. As the NIL landscape continues to develop, one of the more interesting questions posed as a result of these new policies is whether or how a student athlete’s engagement in NIL at the high school level might affect their NCAA eligibility. A new lawsuit of first impression could address this very issue.

In November 2023, Matt and Ryan Bewley, twin brothers from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The Bewleys are former basketball players at Overtime Elite Academy (“OTE”). OTE is a professional basketball league and training program for high school players. “In addition to basketball training, OTE places equal importance on education. The league offers a fully accredited curriculum, allowing players to pursue their academic goals alongside their basketball aspirations.”[1] OTE players can either make a career playing for the OTE league, or they can play until they satisfy the coursework necessary to graduate and go to college and perhaps play for a college team.

Established mere months before the NCAA lifted their ban on NIL, OTE, coincidentally, was founded in part to offer an alternative path for athletes to receive compensation for their talents.[2] As such, OTE initially offered their athletes only salaries. After the NCAA changed their NIL policies, however, OTE adjusted the options available to their players. Because accepting a salary can threaten college eligibility, OTE today offers their players one of two options: they can either collect a salary or, for those with collegiate-level aspirations, opt for a scholarship instead thus keeping their eligibility intact.

When the Bewleys signed with OTE, they did not have the option to elect a scholarship. Instead, they were paid a salary. The brothers were later awarded and accepted scholarship offers to play for Chicago State University. As a result of their OTE payments, however, the NCAA, citing amateurism rules, deemed the Bewley brothers to be ineligible. The NCAA reasoned that because the Bewleys’ OTE compensation exceeded their “actual and necessary expenses,” they could not be considered amateur players. Additionally, the NCAA “also said the twins competed for a team that considered itself professional.”[3]

In their lawsuit, the Bewleys argue that the NCAA’s amateurism rules are anticompetitive and violate federal antitrust law; specifically, Section 1 of the Sherman Act. They allege that the NCAA is effectively restraining trade by limiting the amount of compensation that student-athletes can receive. This argument is reminiscent of the arguments raised by the Plaintiffs in the Alston case, which opened the door for NIL. In Alston, the Plaintiffs argued that the NCAA violated federal antitrust law by placing limits on the education-related benefits that colleges and universities can provide to student-athletes. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs in Alston, applying antitrust law directly to the NCAA and finding that the rule was an anti-competitive restriction on interstate commerce.

Both Alston and now Bewley challenge the NCAA’s authority to regulate student-athletes’ compensation. The Bewley brothers are also alleging that the NCAA’s determination violates state law, specifically, the Illinois Student-Athlete Endorsement Rights Act (“ISAEA”). The ISAEA allows student-athletes in Illinois to monetize their NIL by entering into deals with any company or organization.

The NCAA’s primary rebuttal in Bewley is that, while student-athletes can now profit from their NIL, they are still considered “amateurs” and should not be paid to play for professional teams while at the high school level. Specifically, the NCAA provides that “[p]rospective student-athletes may accept compensation from their club team while in high school, provided payments do not exceed costs for the individual to participate on the team.”[4] In other words, the compensation received must be “actual and necessary,” which the NCAA defines as being: meals, lodging, apparel, equipment and supplies, coaching and instruction, health/medical insurance, transportation, medical treatment and physical therapy, facility usage, entry fees, and other reasonable expenses.

The NCAA believes that the Bewleys’ compensation from OTE exceeded these permissible limits, maintaining that it was not related to legitimate educational expenses and that their participation in the OTE program was akin to playing for a professional team.

The outcome of the Bewley case could have a significant impact on the future of compensation in college athletics, and specifically as it relates to the further application of federal antitrust law to the NCCA as well as nuanced circumstances where high school athletes who received payment before the NCAA permitted NIL now face risks relating to their collegiate eligibility.   


[1] What is Overtime Elite?, Fan Arch, https://fanarch.com/blogs/fan-arch/what-is-overtime-elite (last visited November 11, 2023).

[2] Overtime Elite: Basketball Leaguge to Pay High School Players Six-Figure Salaries, Boardroom, https://boardroom.tv/overtime-elite-basketball-league-to-pay-high-school-players-six-figure-salaries/ (March 4, 2021):

OTE sees itself as a solution to the lack of compensation for amateur athletes and will offer every player a minimum salary of $100,000 per year, plus bonuses and equity shares in Overtime. Players will also profit from their likeness, a long-disputed issue in college sports, through sales of jerseys, trading cards, video games, and NFT’s.

Athletes will also be able to sign direct sponsorships with sneaker companies, something that is not allowed for collegiate athletes.

“Paying basketball players isn’t radical,” said Overtime President, Zack Weiner. “What’s radical is telling people who put in thousands of hours of work that they have to do it for free.” OTE will change this.

[3] Twin Brothers Suing NCAA in Federal Court Over Eligibility Dispute Involving NIL Compensation, Associated Press News, https://apnews.com/article/ncaa-nil-lawsuit-3f8cd7d2c6f7b73e816f77741663fb24 (November 3, 2023, 9:10 PM) (internal quotations omitted).

[4] Payment from Sports Team, NCAA, http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/eligibility_center/ECMIP/Amateurism_Certification/Payment_from_team.pdf (last visited November 11, 2023).

 

NLR Logo

We collaborate with the world's leading lawyers to deliver news tailored for you. Sign Up to receive our free e-Newsbulletins

 

Sign Up for e-NewsBulletins