Sports Litigation and Cases to Keep an Eye on in the New Year (Part II)

Part one of our look ahead at some of hottest sports litigation topics focused on the Deflategate appeal and the battle in New Jersey over the legalization of sports betting. Today, we’ll look at the latest surrounding the NCAA anitrust litigation, concussion litigation in the NHL, and the FIFA corruption scandal.

NCAA Antitrust Litigation

The Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA cleared the way for collegiate schools to offer student athletes the full cost of attending college, but also prevents schools from offering students money for use of their “likeness.” The NCAA may now be fighting an even larger battle in 2016, with another group of student athletes challenging the NCAA’s limit on compensation.

Within a month of the O’Bannon decision, the same federal district court granted a group of former and current student athletes class action certification in a lawsuit against the NCAA seeking compensation beyond the full cost of attending school. The NCAA sets a cap on the grant-in-aid that student athletes may receive. Currently, grant-in-aid is capped at the value of tuition, fees, room and board, and required course books.

The athletes contend that the cap violates federal antitrust laws and that without the cap schools would compete in recruiting athletes by providing larger grant-in-aids. The NCAA argues that removing the cap will cause more ordinary student-athletes, who do not receive full grant-in-aid, to lose their aid altogether.

NHL Concussion Litigation

Following in the wake of the NFL’s concussion litigation issues and subsequent media attention, a host of former hockey players began bringing similar lawsuits against the NHL in 2013, alleging that the League was aware of and actively tried to conceal research showing the dangers of concussions and their long-term effects on the health of players after they hang up their skates.

In 2014, a Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the lawsuits in Minnesota Federal Court. The ongoing case is currently being presided over by District Judge Susan Richard Nelson, and in October 2014, the case was converted to a class-action suit.

In March 2015, Judge Nelson threw out the NHL’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the class of former players had effectively pleaded their case. The NHL had sought dismissal on the argument that the claims were both time-barred and not recognized under all relevant jurisdictions the MDL suit covers. Most of the claims brought against the League are from former players suffering from head-trauma issues or from the families of those who were diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder resulting from repetitive injuries to an individual’s brain that can only be determined through post-mortem examination.

This past summer, the NHL was ordered to produced documents regarding players’ medical records and other pieces of information relevant to the suit, although player names, jersey numbers, team names and other identifying information needed to be redacted before disclosure. However, the NHL has fought back, arguing against the release of such information as privileged and stating that to allow such documents to be released will result in them becoming public knowledge, which could turn public opinion against the League, damaging its image and, in turn, its business ventures. Naturally, the NHL wants to keep as much of the case out of the hands of the media as possible.

Unfortunately, until discovery concludes on this matter, no time-frame can yet be established concerning the lawsuit moving further in the litigation process.

FIFA Corruption Scandal

The soccer world was shaken up in 2015 when the U.S. Justice Department announced it had charged nine FIFA officials and five others connected to the organization with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracies through participation in a twenty-four year scheme to siphon money for their own personal benefit.

On May 27, 2015, at a luxury hotel in Zurich, Swiss authorities arrested the officials, who have since been extradited to the United States to be charged in federal court. Hours after those arrests, Swiss officials announced they had opened their own set of criminal charges against the soccer executives and other people in connection with the corruption.

Days later, FIFA voted to re-elect President Sepp Blatter to a fifth term at the head of the organization, even though his name had been tossed around as one of those investigated by both U.S. and Swiss authorities. Blatter was not arrested in connection with the corruption charges, but because of the tremendous amount of backlash from the global soccer community, he announced he would resign as President in early June, fulfilling his duties in the position until FIFA could hold a special election to vote a new person in office. That special election is expected to be held before FIFA’s next general congress meeting scheduled for May 2016. Unfortunately for Blatter, who has served as FIFA’s President since 1998, the Swiss government officially announced it had opened a criminal investigation against him in early Fall 2015.

The soccer-governing body itself took steps to try to reclaim its global image in light of the corruption accusations this past summer, banning former FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer from all soccer related activities at both the national and international level for life in July. Blazer, one of the most prolific and highest ranking American representatives in the FIFA organization, pled guilty to charges of bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion, and played a pivotal role in leading up to the May arrests. Blazer had worked undercover with U.S. prosecutors throughout the months leading up to the corruption scandal’s announcement.

The case, which is being heard in the Eastern District of New York, continued to build momentum throughout the latter half of 2015, as currently forty-one people have been charged in connection to the corruption. According to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who is prosecuting the case on behalf of the government, over $200 million in bribes and kickbacks were paid to FIFA officials and executives to secure rights to international soccer tournaments over the last two decades, including the selections of Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively.

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