Former NCAA Officials Blow Whistle on Amateurism in SCOTUS Brief

Daniel Libit
·3 min read

In an unprecedented show of collective dissent from those who have served within the NCAA’s ranks, six former NCAA employees filed an amici curiae brief Wednesday in support of former college athletes who are suing college sports’ governing body over antitrust claims related to scholarship restrictions.

In a “friends-of-the-court” petition in the Supreme Court case NCAA v. Alston, five former NCAA investigators and a one-time senior executive have said the association’s position has failed to keep up with the times.

“Though they once supported and enforced all of the NCAA’s rules,” the brief states, “with the benefit of further experience and hindsight, amici have come to believe that the NCAA’s current restrictions on college athletes’ receipt of education-related benefits do not promote ‘amateurism,’ which the NCAA itself has admitted has no fixed definition.”

Among the group, the most notable petitioner is Mark Lewis, who served as NCAA executive vice president until 2016. In 2014, Lewis was among the NCAA’s key trial witnesses in the separate class action lawsuit brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the publicity rights of college athletes.

The other five pro-Alston petitioners—Tim Nevius, Renee Gomilla, Mark Neyland, Angela O’Neal and Jasmine Williams—worked in various enforcement roles within the NCAA.

Of the group, Nevius, an attorney who once led the NCAA’s investigation into “Tattoogate” at Ohio State, has been the most active in speaking out against amateurism. In 2019, Nevius launched the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, an organization aimed at raising public awareness and providing legal support for college athletes over eligibility and other NCAA entanglements.

Although the former NCAA employees constitute a tiny faction of those who have worked for the organization, their joint statement is nonetheless remarkable, considering how rare it is for insiders to speak out against the core doctrine of the association’s canon.

Lewis was a quintessential NCAA insider, playing a key role in securing the NCAA’s $8.8 billion television rights extension with Turner Sports and CBS in 2016, prior to his departure. At the time, Lewis was earning $793,297 in annual compensation, according to the NCAA’s tax filings, and he received an additional million dollars on his way out the door.

The amicus brief marks a complete reversal of Lewis’ testimony in the O’Bannon case. When asked about the concept of amateurism during that trial seven years ago, Lewis said, “I think at its heart, it is what college sports is.” He went on to argue that, of the 117 million people who tuned into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that year, “the fact that these are not professionals is a very real part of why they watch the tournament.”

In Wednesday’s 28-page filing, Lewis and the other amici curiae argue that the NCAA’s compensation does not preserve consumer demand.

However, by early last year, Lewis had signaled that he had undergone a change of heart on the issue, joining an advisory board for the National College Players Association, the advocacy group that has led the push for greater athlete compensation. In an interview at the time, Lewis told ESPN that if the NCAA’s “priority is to monetize the sport,” then players should be entitled to earn money as well.

In the testimonial equivalent of switching jerseys, the former NCAA officials’ brief in support of the Alston class follows one filed last month by former athletes in support of the NCAA. As Sportico previously reported, several of that brief’s signatories, including former NFL running back Darren McFadden, indicated in interviews that their views about the case may actually be more in line with the plaintiffs.

The ex-NCAA officials’ brief was filed by James Quinn, a prominent New York-based litigator who once successfully represented CBS in a class-action antitrust lawsuit brought by former college athletes accusing the network of improperly using their names, images and likenesses.

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