Winston & Strawn, LLP has recently announced that it was launching a new practice entirely devoted to collegiate and amateur athletes. The midtown New York practice intends to "provide comprehensive legal services to clients involved in all aspects of college and amateur athletics."
In the past, student athletes a)have faced the wrath of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the form of suspensions and investigations for a multitude of minor infractions; b)have had their likeness exploited by video game companies without receiving compensation; and c)have been poorly protected from concussions in multiple NCAA-sanctioned sports. But despite all the legal activity involving student athletes, no law firm has ever specifically devoted resources to their cause. Until now.
Because of this, Winston & Strawn’s endeavor has room to help some of the least-protected athletes in the country, especially considering the two major litigation areas for NCAA athletes today.
Concussions: In the wake of a massive NFL concussion suit settlement involving 4,000 retired players, attention has now turned to the NCAA. Last week, a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA over brain trauma went through mitigation. The suit claims that the NCAA failed to provide players with information about concussion dangers and rules that could prevent serious injuries. On a smaller level, former Samford University soccer player Mary Shelton Wells filed a suit against the organization for failing to educate her and her teammates about the dangers of concussions. Wells suffered multiple concussions in her career and was forced to retire after it took her a year and a half to recover from one. The cases in the judicial system right now could potentially combine for a joint action suit even larger than the one filed against the NFL.
Compensation: Perhaps the most significant way Winston & Strawn could help collegiate athletes is in the area of compensation for athletes. The Atlantic published a strong argument for paying athletes earlier this year, demonstrating how the structure of the NCAA exploits college athletes. The most recent/famous example of which being Johnny Manziel's half-game suspension in this year's Texas A&M season opener because Manziel was suspected of selling his signature on merchandise. The NCAA originally accused Manziel of violating NCAA bylaw 188.8.131.52, which makes a player ineligible if he or she “accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”
The organization, however, quickly backtracked. In a joint statement with Texas A&M, the NCAA stated that "there [was] no evidence that quarterback Johnny Manziel received money in exchange for autographs.” Manziel was punished anyway, all the while the NCAA was making money by selling Manziel gear on its site.
The issue of compensation has come out in cases such as O’Bannon v. NCAA, where players (both current and former) have sued over the fact that the NCAA profits from using their likeness in NCAA/EA Sports video games.
Now, thanks to Winston & Strawn, collegiate athletes have a good weapon to fight back. The lead attorney in the new practice is Jeff Kessler, who has decades of experience representing high profile athletes like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady. He's also worked with the National Hockey League Players' Association and the Major League Baseball Players Association.
It'll be interesting to see what comes from this new development. It could very well be the beginning of the end for the NCAA.