Antitrust Trial Concerning Athletes’ IP Rights Poses New Major Challenge to NCAA Cartel Arrangements

Alden Abbott —  12 June 2014

The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) longstanding cartel-like arrangements once again are facing serious legal scrutiny.  On June 9 a federal antitrust trial opened in Oakland featuring college athletes’ attempt to enjoin the NCAA from exploiting the athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (“rights of publicity”) for profitRights of publicity are a well-recognized form of intellectual property.  Although the factual details concerning the means by which NCAA institutions may have extracted those rights (for example, from signed waivers that may have been required as a condition for receipt of athletic scholarships) remain to be developed, a concerted NCAA effort to exploit the athletes’ IP, if proven, would be highly anticompetitive.  Consistent with the TOTM tradition of highlighting challenges to NCAA competitive arrangements, let’s look at what’s at stake.

The NCAA is involved in major sports-related revenue-producing projects with its corporate partners, such as Electronic Arts (EA), a $4 billion company that produces video games.  The money is big – EA’s NCAA Football game alone is reported to bring in over $200 million a year in gross revenues.  Although the NCAA has denied using player likenesses in video games, the creators of the NCAA Football series have indicated that actual athletes’ jersey numbers and attributes are used, a fact apparently known to NCAA executives.  Moreover, recent separate $20 million and $40 million settlements agreed to by the NCAA and EA in suits brought by college athletes provide additional indications that the NCAA may be aware that it has exploited college players’ rights of publicity.

So what is the antitrust angle?  In dealing with student athletes, the NCAA, which represents the interests of its member colleges, acts like a monopsony cartel, as Judge Posner has noted, and as Blair and Harrison have explained in detail.  Anticompetitive monopsony buyer agreements have long been struck down by the courts as Sherman Act violations, as in Mandeville Farms and in National Macaroni Manufacturers v. FTC, and occasionally have been the subject of criminal prosecution.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that all restrictions the NCAA places on student athletes run afoul of the antitrust laws.  As the Supreme Court made clear in the 1984 NCAA case, the federal antitrust laws apply to the NCAA, but competitive restraints may pass muster if they are justifiable means of fostering competition among amateur athletic teams, such as uniform rules defining the conditions of a sports contest, the eligibility of participants, or the sharing of responsibilities and benefits integral to the NCAA’s joint venture.

Like the anticompetitive restrictions on member colleges’ separate television contracts struck down by the Supreme Court in NCAA, however, the NCAA’s profiting from student athletes’ rights of publicity is not vital to the preservation of balanced collegiate amateur competition.   Likewise, it is not needed to avoid the payment of student salaries that some might argue smacks of disfavored “professionalism” (although others would argue it promotes healthy competition and avoids exploitation of athletes).  In contrast, a policy of vindicating athletes’ right of publicity enables them to capture the value of the intellectual property generated by their accomplishments, and thus incentivizes outstanding athletic achievements, consistent with the legitimate ends of NCAA competitions.  Proof of a concerted effort by the NCAA to deny this benefit to student athletes and instead to share the IP-generated proceeds only with member institutions would, if shown, appear to lack any cognizable efficiency justification, and thus be ripe for antitrust condemnation.

Whatever the outcome of the current rights of publicity litigation, the NCAA may expect to face antitrust scrutiny on a number of fronts.  This is as it should be.  While the organization clearly yields efficiencies that benefit consumers (such as establishing and overseeing rules and standards for many collegiate sports), its inherent temptation to act as a classic cartel for the financial benefit of its members will not disappear.  Indeed, its incentive to seek monopoly profits may rise, as the money generated by organized athletics and related entertainment offshoots continues to grow.  Accordingly, antitrust enforcers should remain vigilant, and efforts to obtain NCAA-specific statutory antitrust exemptions, even if well-meaning, should be resisted.

Alden Abbott

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I am a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. I write on antitrust, domestic and international regulatory policy, and law and economics. I am an Adjunct Faculty Member at George Mason Law School.

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