Big Ten Lawsuit Potentially Opens Floodgates for Student-Athletes
Updated: Apr 14
The past year has posed many unprecedented challenges for college athletics. Several decisions made by athletic directors and conference commissioners have been criticized and doubted. Many of these complaints are non-threatening to schools and conferences. However, the lawsuit filed by the University of Nebraska football players on August 27, following the Big Ten Conference’s announcement to postpone the fall season, is the first real threatening action. This suit possibly opened the floodgates to more legal claims brought against athletic conferences and universities across the nation.
The Nebraska players challenged the authority and decision-making power of the Big Ten. The main issue is whether the conference breached its bylaws in how it voted to postpone the fall season start date in light of COVID-19 concerns. The claim itself alleged causes of action for breach of contract, tortious interference with business expectancies, and declaratory judgement. Specifically, the players claimed that the Big Ten’s bylaws required a 60 percent vote of member university presidents to postpone the state of the season, which they believed did not happen.
The Big Ten replied to the filing within one hour and stated that the players’ lawsuit had no merit.  They were ready to defend their decision and the health of its student-athletes, proving their confidence in the lawsuit.The suit proceeded in Nebraska state court where the judge ruled that the Big Ten was to disclose any additional information related to the decision surrounding the football season. This included all governing documents and bylaws and any documents reflecting how the official vote to postpone the season took place. The Big Ten’s attorney criticized the court’s request arguing that just because student-athletes were upset with a decision, does not entitle them to these documents. Nonetheless, the Big Ten met the deadline and then filed a motion to dismiss the hearing.
In the weeks leading up to the motion to dismiss hearing on September 25, the Big Ten received several pressuring letters from Nebraska lawmakers and the Nebraska Attorney General. The lawmakers encouraged the conference to reevaluate its decision, stressing the importance of play to not only the student-athletes, but the entire university community. The Attorney General stated that the Big Ten also violated the state’s Nonprofit Corporation Act, which would commence another lawsuit if the decision was not reversed.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s Attorney General was planning for Ohio State University to file a lawsuit against the Big Ten for violating contracts between the conference and university and for illegal interference in a business relationship. Additionally, state legislators from six other states wrote to the Big Ten’s commissioner, stressing the massive losses that would result from postponing the season. Momentum to fight the conference’s decision and to force them into reinstating the season was building across its member schools.
On September 16th, nine days before the motion to dismiss hearing, the Big Ten announced that the football season would be reinstated, which ultimately went against their original statement that the decision would not be revisited. Immediately after this announcement, the Nebraska student-athletes dropped the suit.
The timing of the litigation and the reinstatement seemed all too coincidental. At the outset of the lawsuit, the Big Ten was committed to defending its decision and did not appear threatened by the players’ claims.However, as more student-athletes and legal professionals got involved and more documents were requested, the Big Ten’s stance seemingly started to change.
The conference basically had two choices. First, they could continue with the lawsuit and risk being sued by other universities and student-athletes, as there was evidence that other schools were planning the same sort of lawsuit. Alternatively, they could have hushed the lawsuit by giving the players and schools what they wanted: a football season. They chose the latter.
If they did reinstate the season to avoid legal headaches and the threat of exposing their decision-making process, what does this say about college athletics? This lawsuit shows the power that student-athletes hold in decision-making processes. It can even be argued that they have even more power than conference commissioners and other administrators because they reversed a decision that was not supposed to be revisited. The question then becomes whether this is right. The Big Ten attorney argues that it is not. He does not believe it is fair for an authoritative body, such as the Big Ten, to be required to disclose its decision-making details because players are upset with a decision.
On the other hand, these student-athletes drive a lot of the economic means for the universities and their local communities. Without play, the universities lose millions of dollars that support scholarships, salaries, and other expenses. Also, the Big Ten football season tends to drive the economy in the cities in which member schools are located. These kinds of arguments would support players having a voice in the decision-making process.
These times are unprecedented, not only for college athletics, but for the entire country. Hopefully this experience allowed the Big Ten, and other conferences, to reconsider their governing bylaws, decision-making processes, and ways to include student-athletes. This could potentially prevent more lawsuits against conferences and universities and provide players with a reasonable voice. Without some reconsideration, the Nebraska lawsuit might have opened the floodgates for student-athletes across the country to sue conferences and universities for any decision imposed on them.
References:  Jessop, A. (Aug. 29, 2020). Will more Big Ten athletes sue the conference in a bid to start the season?. Retrieved from https://theathletic.com/2029793/2020/08/29/will-more-big-ten-athletes-sue-the-conference-in-a-bid-to-start-the-season/?article_source=search&search_query=big%20ten%20lawsuit
 Stevens, M. (Aug. 27, 2020). Big Ten Statement On Nebraska Players Civil Suit: ‘This lawsuit has no merit’. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/college/illinois/football/nebraska-football-players-lawsuit-against-big-ten-conference
 Bland, E. (Sep. 14, 2020). Big Ten meets deadline by providing documents in Nebraska players lawsuit. Retrieved from: https://omaha.com/sports/huskers/football/big-ten-meets-deadline-by-providing-documents-in-nebraska-football-players-lawsuit/article_3bebb846-4566-5ec4-aa70-bddd73bf26b9.html
 @Sean_Callahan. “Big Ten attorney Andrew Luger argues the "harm would be incredible" if board of directors documents were made available to the public just because eight student-athletes disagree with the decision. He said the court is asking for something with "no precedent." Twitter, 27 Aug. 2020, 4:26 p.m., https://twitter.com/Sean_Callahan/status/1299080813028532229
 Bland, supra.
 McKewon, S. (Sep. 9, 2020). Nebraska lawmakers ask Big Ten to ‘reconsider’ postponement vote. Retrieved from https://omaha.com/sports/huskers/nebraska-lawmakers-ask-big-ten-to-reconsider-postponement-vote/article_350d167b-f584-5568-b23c-c0f6000e69d1.html#tracking-source=article-related-bottom
 McKewon, supra.
 Paniagua, H. (Sep. 16, 2020). Timeline of events leading to Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall. Retrieved from https://omaha.com/sports/huskers/football/timeline-of-events-leading-to-big-tens-decision-to-play-football-this-fall/article_b3a8da7c-1c46-5adb-ae7f-fe6e747f80fe.html.
 Gulick, B. (Sep. 9, 2020). Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost Prepared to Advise Ohio State to Sue Big Ten Over Cancelled Football Season. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/college/ohiostate/news/dave-yost-ohio-state-could-sue-big-ten
 Rutter, E. (Sep. 10, 2020). State Legislators Take On Big Ten In Attempt To Bring Back Football. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/college/michigan/football/michigan-football-big-ten-nebraska-julie-slama-kevin-warren-covid-19-schlissel-harbaugh
 Paniagua, supra.
 Bland, E. (Sep. 16, 2020). Husker Football players drop lawsuit against Big Ten. Retrieved from https://omaha.com/sports/huskers/football/husker-football-players-drop-lawsuit-against-big-ten/article_7d6f1fe1-dbc4-52d2-8407-b8fc4e5ded62.html#tracking-source=article-related-bottom
 Jessop, supra.
 @Sean_Callahan, supra.
 @Sean_Callahan, supra.
 Rutter, supra.
 Jessop, supra.
 Picture: Orwen, G. (Aug. 31, 2020). Big Ten lawsuit art [Digital image]. Retrieved from http://www.dailynebraskan.com/big-ten-lawsuit-art/image_127f161e-ebee-11ea-892a-73bf25907e36.html