UNC Tennis Player’s Antitrust Case Could Slam NCAA Amateurism

NCAA rules limiting college athletes’ economic opportunities face yet another antitrust attack, as University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tennis player Reese Brantmeier recently sued the association over its prize money restrictions.

Central to Brantmeier v. NCAA is a rule prohibiting tennis players from accepting more than $10,000 per calendar year in prize money prior to attending college, with allowances for additional prize money not exceeding actual and necessary expenses. Like other antitrust lawsuits brought against the NCAA, Brantmeier’s core argument is that the NCAA and its member schools and conferences—i.e., competing businesses that join hands through NCAA rulemaking—illegally boycott college athletes who violate amateurism rules and illegally conspire to price fix what college athletes can earn.

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Jason Miller, Joel Lulla and other attorneys for the 19-year-old filed their complaint in a North Carolina federal district court on March 18. Brantmeier seeks certification of her case as a class action on behalf of herself and other Division I athletes in “individual sports,” a term the complaint defines as tennis, golf, swimming, track and field, wrestling, gymnastics, skiing, fencing, women’s bowling, indoor and outdoor cross country, women’s triathlon, women’s equestrian, rifle and skiing. Among other remedies, Brantmeier demands an injunction that would restrain the NCAA from enforcing prize money restrictions.

Much of the complaint depicts the NCAA as hypocritical for, on one hand, permitting NIL deals and effectively allowing NIL collectives to target high school recruits and transfer portal players in pay-for-play arrangements while, on the other hand, still restricting prize money. Prize restrictions are portrayed as vestiges of amateurism, a system that attempts to distinguish college athletes who play in a multibillion-dollar industry as amateurs by denying them economic opportunities.

Brantmeier’s own experience illustrates the economic injury at stake. As a 16-year-old high school junior, she earned $49,109 in total prize money from the U.S. Tennis Association on account of her performance in the 2021 U.S. Open. But to maintain her NCAA eligibility, she was only permitted to accept up to $10,000—for all competitions. She had to forfeit much of her earnings to remain eligible for college tennis.

Despite what she describes as complying with NCAA rules, Brantmeier was still deemed ineligible to play at UNC in the fall semester of her freshman year. According to her complaint, the NCAA deemed some of her expenses not “actual and necessary.” Those expenses included the purchase of a portable scanner to track receipts, a racket restringing and the cost of a hotel room that she, as a 16-year-old minor, shared with her mom. When Brantmeier agreed to make a $5,100 donation to a charity, she says the NCAA cleared her to play for the Tar Heels.

In the coming weeks, the NCAA will answer the complaint and raise counterarguments. The NCAA will likely contend its rules are reasonable restrictions to oversee college sports. The association could argue tournament prizes are qualitatively different from NIL payments. The former reflects the labor of athletes in arguably professional settings whereas the latter is supposed to reflect the commercial use of an athlete’s identity.

Although in a different jurisdiction (Illinois) and not binding on Brantmeier’s case, the NCAA has thus far won Bewley v. NCAA—a case where the NCAA disqualified twin brothers who received compensation as part of playing for Overtime Elite. U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman opined the brothers’ receipt of a wage to play basketball before playing in college ran afoul of legally permissible NCAA rules. Whether compensation to play in OTE and prize money in tennis are comparable and analogous could be debated. The fact that some NIL collectives engage in pay-for-play activities, which the NCAA now says it won’t take enforcement action on, also weakens the NCAA’s defense.

Antitrust threats against NCAA rules governing tennis, skiing and other lower-profile college sports (relative to football and basketball) might not seem like grave threats to amateurism. But the reality is quite different. Each case against the NCAA builds on others, and successful cases create favorable precedent for other parties to use against the NCAA.

Ed O’Bannon defeating the NCAA in a case about the use of college players’ likenesses in video games paved the way for states to pass NIL laws. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA v. Alston that it was illegal to restrict compensation for education-related expenses paved the way for successful antitrust challenges against restrictions on transfers and, most recently, NIL collectives.

The trajectory of Brantmeier’s case remains to be seen, but if it succeeds, the NCAA’s overarching defense of amateurism would take another hit.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles will preside over Brantmeier v. NCAA.

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