Oregon Denies ‘Any Control’ Over NIL Collective in Title IX Defense

The University of Oregon has told a federal court that it lacks “any control” or direction over NIL collectives, including the Oregon-focused Division Street backed by Nike founder Phil Knight.

In an 89-page answer filed Monday night, the university laid out its defenses against a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit filed late last year by a group of 32 current and former Ducks women beach volleyball players and rowers.

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The plaintiffs are contending that Oregon has systematically deprived them of equal athletic financial aid and other resources, including those that empowered their ability to monetize their name, image and likeness. Their lawsuit is the first ever to invoke alleged discrepancies in NIL opportunities as the basis of a Title IX noncompliance.

By insisting on its separation from Division Street, the university is setting up a fight—including a battle over discovery—to determine the nature of the relationship between Oregon and Division Street, which was launched by Knight and a group of other Oregon boosters in September 2021. In early 2022, as Sportico first reported, the Division Street-Oregon connection was the source of one of the NCAA’s first NIL-related enforcement probes, though nothing ultimately came of it.

Much has changed to the college sports regulatory landscape since then. Indeed, much has changed in just the three months since the athletes filed their case, namely a separate lawsuit filed by the states of Tennessee and Virginia against the NCAA over its NIL restrictions.

After a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in that case on Feb. 23, halting the governing body’s ability to enforce its NIL rules—including those that prohibit active school involvement in facilitating NIL deals for athletes—NCAA president Charlie Baker announced last week that the association would pause all related investigative and infraction proceedings until the injunction was lifted.

While some schools are likely to take Baker’s announcement as a green light, Oregon must gauge any visible embrace of a collective by the fact it is now on the record in court insisting upon its arm’s-length approach.

Beyond NIL, Oregon castigated the plaintiff’s complaint as being “replete with pages and pages of inaccuracies,” quibbling in particular with what it terms the lawsuit’s “specious comparison” between the resources provided to the women’s volleyball and football, which accounts for a third of its varsity male athletes.

“[G]iven the unique nature of football,” UO’s lawyers argue, “as a full contact sport and given the size of the team, it has a larger coaching staff, takes chartered flights to away games because the team and staff fill a full flight, is required to stay at a hotel the night before home games, and has a large team meeting room for studying game footage and other team preparation.”

One of the more eyebrow-raising points to the initial complaint alleged that the beach volleyball players were made to practice and play matches in a public park which “has bathrooms with no doors on the stalls, and is frequently littered with feces, drug paraphernalia, and other discarded items.” The complaint included a photo of what it purported to be the offending lavatory.

However, Oregon, in its response, insists it “provides a portable bathroom with a door and a lock that is exclusively used by the beach volleyball athletes, and that is not the bathroom depicted in (the) picture.”

Among its affirmative defenses is that 11 of the 32 plaintiffs have graduated from the university, while five others are currently no longer enrolled; that the remaining plaintiffs are “inadequate representatives of the class;” and that they have sustained little to no actual damages.

(This story has been corrected in the second paragraph to accurately describe the filing.)

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