The NCAA Continues to Block Student-Athletes From Transferring Universities: Protecting Fair Play or Violating Antitrust Laws?

Former Northern Illinois University football player, Peter Deppe, filed suit against the NCAA in which he alleged that the NCAA’s “year-in-residence” rule violates antitrust laws. NIU recruited Deppe as a walk-on punter, but designated him as a red shirt player for his first year. In August 2014, the special teams coach told Deppe that beginning in January 2015, he would receive an athletic-scholarship and take over as the starting punter. However, the special teams coach transferred schools, and NIU’s head coach informed Deppe that he would not receive the scholarship. Also, NIU signed another punter, reducing Deppe’s future chances of receiving an athletic-scholarship or achieving playing time.

Deppe obtained an official letter of release from NIU to transfer to the University of Iowa. The University of Iowa conditioned Deppe’s transfer on his eligibility to play in the fall of 2016. After contacting the NCAA, Deppe learned that he was prevented from playing in the fall because he sought transfer from one school to another, and NCAA rules barred him from field time for one year. While the University of Iowa admitted Deppe on academic grounds, his scholarship was passed-over for another player who was eligible to play in the fall season.

Deppe sued the NCAA, alleging that the transfer rules illegally restrain trade, violating the Sherman Act. In his complaint, Deppe seeks injunctive relief preventing the NCAA from enforcing the transfer restrictions. The NCAA claims that it enacted this rule in order to help student-athletes achieve academic success and to prevent poaching situations. Deppe’s proposed class action suit contends that the year-in residence rule is not motivated by education, but rather is “merely economically motivated.” As support, Deppe notes that transfer students from junior colleges do not have the same sit-out requirements when transferring to a four-year university, even though these athletes have “had no exposure to a four-year university’s rigorous academic demands.” Also, this rule unfairly prevents student-athletes from transferring schools, while coaches are free to transfer without any restrictions. Deppe argues that university coaches can better their own situations and reap enormous financial benefits, while student-athletes are punished for transferring — losing a year of playing time — thus, making them an unattractive option for many coaches.

In response to Deppe’s suit, the NCAA filed a motion to dismiss the antitrust claim, alleging that the rule is pro-competitive and necessary for student-athletes to succeed academically. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana will hear oral arguments on the NCAA’s motion in March 2017. If the court grants the NCAA’s motion, college-athletes will continue to be restricted from pursuing better opportunities, as they will be prevented from transferring to universities where they will receive more scholarship money or playing time.

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