As Princeton enters Sweet 16 spotlight, so should lawsuit vs. Ivy League and its policy of not offering athletic scholarships
When Princeton faces Creighton in the men's Sweet 16 on Friday night of the NCAA tournament, it will represent a bit of history. The Tigers, a No. 15 seed who upset Arizona and Missouri in the opening weekend of the tournament, are the first Ivy League team to advance to the third round since Cornell in 2010. Princeton is trying to become the first Ivy team to make it to the Elite Eight in 44 years.
Off the court, two other Ivy athletes are trying to make some history, not just for themselves or their school, but for all athletes who compete at one of the eight member institutions.
Earlier this month, there was a class-action lawsuit filed in United States District Court in Connecticut, with two plaintiffs alleging that the Ivy League's rule against granting athletics scholarships and other forms of payments for athletes is an antitrust violation.
Grace Kirk, a current member of the Brown University women's basketball team, and Tamenang Choh, who was on the men's basketball team at Brown from 2017-2022, are the plaintiffs, on behalf of the class of current and former Ivy athletes dating to March 2019. The lawsuit alleges that the long-standing agreement between the eight Ivy League schools to not award athletics scholarships — they have long since been the only Division I schools who don't — or any compensation amounts to an "ongoing price-fixing agreement in violation of the Sherman Act."
The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 is a broad law that prohibits restrictions on interstate commerce and competition in the marketplace.
The case for 2 athletes at Brown: 'the Ivy League has no justifications for its agreement'
The lawsuit, formally Choh vs. Brown University et. al., is the latest to take aim at the NCAA and practices by member institutions since the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in NCAA vs. Alston in 2021, which opened the door for name, image and likeness to become reality.
At least two Ivy grads saw it coming. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, not long after the Alston decision, two Penn graduates who are both attorneys sent a letter to the presidents of the Ivy schools and others within leadership of the cohort, questioning whether the Ivy League's ban on athletic scholarships could continue in light of the Supreme Court decision.
They never heard from any of the letter's recipients.
Ivy schools agreed in 1954 and reaffirmed in 1979 that they would not offer scholarships to student-athletes, instead offering aid based on need, no differently than it does for non-athlete students. And that's the thing that the lawsuit says violates the Sherman Act: they've made this decision as a group.
If one or two of the schools chose not to offer athletic scholarships, it's a different story. But the league's own website details the timeline for the agreement and why it was struck, so all of the schools are on board.
The lawsuit argues that the universities that comprise the Ivy League — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale — "engage in unfettered competition, including with regard to pay, for their respective officers, faculty members, employees, and even graduate students, yet they agree not to provide athletic scholarships or compensate or reimburse collegiate athletes for their athletic services."
The plaintiffs also allege that the restrictions on athletes "are no different, as a matter of law, than the restrictions formerly imposed by the NCAA on athletic scholarships that the Supreme Court in 2021 unanimously struck down as an antitrust violation in NCAA v. Alston" and that the Ivy League agreement constitutes as illegal price fixing, which has been previously condemned by courts.
In summation: "the Ivy League has no justifications for its agreement that can withstand judicial scrutiny — if the court is willing to entertain such purported justifications at all."
Ivy League's defense of rule based on need-based policy for all its students
Nationally, Ivy schools have some of the largest endowments among colleges and universities, with Harvard tops at over $50 billion. Collectively, the eight schools are well over $200 billion. Because of that, nearly all use need-blind admissions, meaning they can admit students regardless of how much they can or can't pay. At Princeton, any student whose parents or guardians earn less than $100,000 a year doesn't pay anything to attend; at Harvard, that number is $75,000.
“The Ivy League athletics model is built upon the foundational principle that student-athletes should be representative of the wider student body, including the opportunity to receive need-based financial aid,” Ivy League executive director Robin Harris said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. “In turn, choosing and embracing that principle then provides each Ivy League student-athlete a journey that balances a world-class academic experience with the opportunity to compete in Division I athletics and ultimately paves a path for lifelong success.”
Making it to the Sweet 16, as Princeton has, can net millions for its conference and school, not just in money from the NCAA but from the exposure of being front-and-center on television and streaming services. Head coaches can earn big bonuses for themselves as their teams win in March.
Norfolk State women's basketball head coach Larry Vickers, whose team played undefeated South Carolina in the NCAA tournament's opening round, was all too happy to acknowledge what playing on ESPN, even in a loss, could do for his program and the HBCU it represents.
You can argue that perhaps the Ivies don't need exposure at this point, though the counter is that while Harvard is certainly well-known globally, Brown and Cornell don't have the same name recognition.
Specific to the lawsuit, it's possible that athletes could go elsewhere if they'd been offered a scholarship to play at a non-Ivy school.
But this is where one part of the athletes' lawsuit comes into play: shouldn't athletes receive something for representing their school athletically, more than their peers who don't spend upward of 30 hours per week practicing and competing?
Gabby Thomas, a former neurobiology major at Harvard, was the 2018 NCAA champion in the indoor 200 meters and also became the fastest collegiate woman in the event with her title-winning sprint. Her impressive mix of speed and smarts made her a media darling. Isn't that worthy of something from Harvard, more than the same financial aid classmates who didn't have nearly the same level of non-academic commitments received?
“The Ivy League agreement is particularly egregious given the huge amounts of money these schools have in their endowments," Ted Normand, co-counsel for the proposed class, said in a statement. "Where hundreds of Division I schools with much fewer resources compete without limits on athletic scholarships and compensation or reimbursement, the Ivy League schools have no excuse for not doing the same."
The lawsuit is seeking treble damages for all current and former athletes in the class dating to March 2019 as well as a permanent injunction that would prohibit the Ivy League Agreement from continuing in any form.
There's unlikely to be a resolution in the immediate future as lawyers for the eight Ivy schools are expected to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which then would lead to a plaintiff response.
In other words, we'll know how Princeton fares against Creighton in the Sweet 16 long before we know if the Ivies will have to start paying up.