Group of Nebraska football players file lawsuit against Big Ten over decision to postpone season

A group of eight Nebraska football players filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten on Thursday.

The lawsuit was filed in the District Court of Lancaster County, Nebraska, and aims to have the Court declare the Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall sports amid the coronavirus pandemic as “invalid,” as well as award an order “enjoining the Big Ten from implementing and enforcing its decision.”

The players involved in the lawsuit are Garrett Snodgrass, Garrett Nelson, Ethan Piper, Noa Pola-Gates, Alante Brown, Brant Banks, Brig Banks and Jackson Hannah. Several of the players’ parents have been vocal in their disagreement of the Big Ten’s decision and even threatened legal action of their own.

The players’ lead attorney, Mike Flood, said in a statement that the Big Ten’s decision to postpone football and other fall sports was made with “vague reasoning and no explanation.” Flood said the players “want to know whether there was a vote and the details of any vote, and whether the Big Ten followed its own rules in reaching its decision.”

The players “will neither seek nor accept damages of $75,000 or more,” the lawsuit says.

“This lawsuit isn’t about money or damages, it’s about real-life relief. These student-athletes have followed all the precautions, underwent regular testing and lived according to the prescribed guidelines of the world-class experts at UNMC all for the chance to play football in September,” Flood said.

“Sadly, these student-athletes have no other recourse than filing a lawsuit against their conference. The Presidents and Chancellors of these universities have taken inconsistent positions about whether there was a vote, and they have largely failed to explain what positions they took.”

The lawsuit argues that the Big Ten’s decision was “based on flawed data that has no application to the present setting.”

“The Big Ten relied heavily on a student of the health effects of COVID-19 that involved COVID-impacted patients who bear little resemblance to the Student Athlete Plaintiffs, who are much older than the Student Athlete Plaintiffs, and who are not in similar physical condition as the Student Athlete Plaintiffs,” the lawsuit says.

“Upon information and belief, the study relied upon has no clinical significance.”

What is in the lawsuit?

The lawsuit brings three counts against the conference: tortious interference with business expectancies, breach of contract and declaratory judgment.

The lawsuit says that the Big Ten’s decision was “unjustified” and that the conference “intentionally interfered with” the players’ “legitimate business expectancies,” including pursuing a professional football career and marketing opportunities when name, image and likeness rights become available in the state of Nebraska.

“There are limited opportunities for the Student Athlete Plaintiffs to develop their brand and market themselves, and the loss of an opportunity to compete in the fall along with other conferences, with national team and individual awards no longer available, will damage the Student Athlete Plaintiffs’ opportunities for professional football prospects and further damage their opportunities to prepare themselves for taking advantage of the Nebraska Fair Pay to Play Act that affords them rights to market their name/image/likeness in years to come,” the lawsuit says.

Additionally, the lawsuit states that the Big Ten exists to “provide opportunities” to student-athletes, and claims the conference “breached its express and implied contractual obligations by reaching a decision that was not properly voted upon by its Council leadership.”

“The Big Ten has been unwilling and/or unable to produce any records evidencing any such vote,” the lawsuit says. “The failure of the Big Ten to hold a vote on the purported decision to cancel the 2020 fall football season is a violation of the Governing Documents and the decision should be declared invalid and unenforceable.”

A chain-link fence is locked ahead of a wall that says "Go Big Red" and a mural of Nebraska football players.
Gates leading into Memorial Stadium are padlocked, in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Aug. 12, 2020. The Big Ten won't play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, and several players are suing the conference for that decision. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Big Ten releases statement in response to lawsuit

In response to the filing, the Big Ten released a statement on Thursday saying that the Nebraska players’ lawsuit has “no merit.”

“The Big Ten Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) overwhelmingly voted to postpone the fall sports season based on medical concerns and in the best interest of the health and safety of our student-athletes. This was an important decision for our 14 member institutions and the surrounding communities,” the conference’s statement reads.

“We share the disappointment that some student-athletes and their families are feeling. However, this lawsuit has no merit and we will defend the decision to protect all student-athletes as we navigate through this global pandemic. We are actively considering options to get back to competition and look forward to doing so when it is safe to play.”

Big Ten: Decision ‘will not be revisited’

On Aug. 19, eight days after the conference announced its postponement, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren released an open letter providing some details about the league’s decision. He said the conference’s decision was “thorough and deliberative and based on sound feedback, guidance and advice from medical experts.” He pointed to the amount of “unknown health risks” associated with COVID-19, including long-term effects and how the virus can impact one’s heart.

Warren also tried to clarify the issue of the conference’s decision-making process. As the conference was panned for a lack of transparency, the issue of whether or not the league presidents and chancellors held an official vote was a constant source of contention for players, parents and fans.

Warren said there was a vote and that it was “overwhelmingly” in favor of postponing fall sports, and it is a decision that “will not be revisited.”

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