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Ex-Northwestern Basketball Player Sues School, NCAA Over “Anticompetitive” Transfer Rule

The legal assault against the NCAA continues.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Butler Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Werly is an experienced sports lawyer and manager of The White Bronco, a blog about sports and the law. Check out TWB for straightforward, in-depth legal analysis of sports issues. -ed

The legal assault against the NCAA continues. Earlier this week, former Northwestern point guard Johnnie Vassar filed a lawsuit in Illinois federal court alleging that NCAA Bylaws (specifically, requiring a DI basketball player to sit out for one year if he or she decides to transfer, create an unlawful restraint in violation of federal antitrust law. Vassar, who according to his lawsuit was "one of the nation’s most heavily recruited" high school players, played only 70 minutes during his one season (2014-15) at Northwestern before the school and head coach Chris Collins allegedly pressured him to transfer and then converted his athletic scholarship into an academic one.

Asking the court to declare that the NCAA transfer rule is unlawful, Vassar claims that requiring a player to sit out a year "functions as a penalty" on players wishing to switch school, making them less attractive to other coaches, who are likely fighting for their own job. The transfer rule may cause players to miss out on the most attractive opportunities and in some cases, including Vassar’s, eliminate DI basketball opportunities altogether.

If the one-year ineligibility period did not exist, Vassar argues, there would be much greater movement among DI players resulting "in an optimal and most efficient matching of players [and schools]." The lawsuit envisions a landscape where players would be free to switch schools without penalty in order to find more playing time, a better relationship with the coaching staff, or a better academic fit.

Moreover, the lawsuit notes the NCAA’s illogical rhetoric, calling the NCAA rationale for the transfer rule ("an opportunity [for student-athletes] to adjust to [their] new school and focus on [their] studies rather than sports") a pretext for the true economic motivations behind a rule that only applies to the NCAA’s highest-revenue sports.

Speaking of economic benefits, the lawsuit ridicules the NCAA’s inconsistent rules of allowing coaches to freely leave a school for a better, and usually higher paying, position, while student-athletes are required to sit out a season (in most cases). The allegations single out Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan, who left his position as head coach of Wisconsin-Milwaukee three years before his contract lapsed, while ex-Badger guard Ricky Bower sat out a year after he transferred to BYU, in this quote:

While the broader impact to college basketball lies in Vassar’s antitrust attack against transfer rules, he also claims that Northwestern breached his athletic scholarship agreement when the school converted it to an academics scholarship, allegedly causing Vassar to lose certain benefits including access to tuition free summer school, tutoring, and athletic facilities. The lawsuit presents only one side of the story, but even if it is remotely true, the allegations are, at best, not a great look for Northwestern and head basketball coach Chris Collins. The following are Vassar’s allegations of Northwestern’s misconduct:

  • After a February 2015 game, Collins berated Vassar in the locker room, telling him that he "sucked" at basketball and didn’t do "shit" in the game.
  • In March 2015, Northwestern coaches called Vassar at least 16 times, and texted him numerous other times, trying to get him to transfer to another school.
  • Northwestern coaches "continually" called Vassar’s mother, despite her request that they contact her at a later date because she was battling serious illness, seeking to enlist her assistance in persuading her son to transfer. They told her that they were not forcing Vassar out of Northwestern but were forcing him off the basketball team.
  • The school forced Vassar to work a janitorial "internship", which included the following tasks:
  • Northwestern’s Deputy General Counsel "informally inquired into Johnnie’s openness to considering a cash payment equivalent to the remaining value of his athletic scholarship" in exchange for Vassar leaving.
  • In an attempt to show that Vassar did not work his internship hours, Northwestern officials forged internship timecards, and even managed to spell Johnnie Vassar’s name wrong:

Vassar’s lawsuit isn’t the only headline impacting the future of NCAA basketball this week. In another potential game-changer, ESPN’s Marc Stein reported this week that NBA Developmental League salaries will triple to upwards of $75,000/year. Although thanks to the NBA’s one-and-done rule, high school basketball players still cannot go straight to the NBA, they are allowed to skip college and spend a year in the D-League before declaring for the NBA Draft. Will the salary increase turn the D-League into a true minor league, syphoning more talent from the NCAA ranks?

These attacks, as well as others (most notably the Jenkins antitrust lawsuit headed up by powerhouse attorney Jeffrey Kessler of Deflategate fame), may be the beginning of the end for the current NCAA model. Even a relatively small victory in this case invalidating transfer rules could drastically impact how teams recruit and the competitive balance between Power 5 teams and the rest of Division I. More substantial legal victories in the Jenkins case or others, could introduce a pay-for-play model, allowing schools to bid for players similar to pro leagues’ free agency.

Read the full Lawsuit on my site, The White Bronco.