Today’s guest columnist is Chris Kaur of Troy University.
When the Board of Regents at the universities of Oklahoma and Georgia initially filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA in 1981, U.S. District Judge Lee Roy West himself immediately dismissed. The lawsuit — which marked a watershed moment in NCAA litigation history — relates to the association’s monopoly on television rights and will become the first case to challenge the authority of the NCAA before the United States Supreme Court.
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As a native of Oklahoma and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, West had no reservations about his inability to sever his loyalty to the school and his commitment to impartial judgment. In an interview from April 2011, West explained that his loyalty to OU began as a student there and grew due to Oklahoma’s success in football; his personal friendship with three-time National Championship-winning soccer coach, Barry Switzer; and his close friendship with All-American and Oklahoma football captain Norman McNab.
Like most colleges, Lee Roy West has taken great pride in his university. Unlike most colleges, Judge West can alter legal standards with his opinions and judgments.
West’s 1981 stepping down highlights new findings from researchers at Troy University and the University of South Carolina Sports Research Institute (CSRI), who examined the demographic backgrounds and group relationships of judges who have ruled in NCAA cases.
Between 1973 and 2020, a total of 174 federal judges issued 234 rulings regarding the NCAA. Of those decisions, judges sided with the college sports management body 63% of the time.
Within this set of issues, the research found that judges’ demographic and educational backgrounds appear to play an important role. For example, judges born in states with an athletics program in the Southeast Conference were 43% more likely to rule in favor of the NCAA than judges born outside of the SEC. It should also be noted that judges who attended an NCAA Division I institution were 15% more likely to rule in favor of the NCAA, while those who attended a Power Five institution were 19% more likely to rule in favor of the NCAA.
Although analyzing the context and merits of each case requires nuance, it appears that judges born in SEC states have, historically, shown greater respect for the NCAA and its practices.
This acknowledgment can be found in the number of NCAA appeals filed in US District Court for the Northern District of California, where Judge Claudia Wilkin presides. Judge Wilkin, a Minnesota native who attended Stanford Law School and UC Berkeley, memorably stated that the abbreviation SEC made her think of the Securities and Exchange Commission, rather than the Mathematical Conference. Daring.
In 2021, SCOTUS ruled unanimously against the NCAA and its practices. Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a Washington-born Yale graduate, stated that “the NCAA is not above the law,” while adding, “Nowhere else in America can companies get away with agreeing not to pay a fair market price to their workers under the theory that their product is defined not Paying wages to their workers at a fair market rate.”
Such a fiery suspension represents the questionable legality of many NCAA practices. However, some judges may be unable to make objective decisions about the NCAA due to the influencing nature that team athletes have on identity in the United States. Unlike Lee Roy West in 1981, most judges probably wouldn’t view their “State U” fan base as a legitimate reason to disqualify themselves from an NCAA matter.
Recent history tells us that the hypothesis of a conflict of interest may not be so far fetched. In 2009, an Alabama state court judge granted a request for an adjournment in a forthcoming civil lawsuit in January. why? So attorneys can attend the BCS National Championships that includes Alabama and Texas. In 2010, another Alabama judge postponed the trial due to the BCS National Championship featuring Auburn and Oregon. Back in 2012, a third Alabama judge granted a request to postpone the trial so that attorneys could attend the BCS National Championship game featuring Alabama and Notre Dame. Not to be outdone by a Georgia state court judge, he granted a postponement in 2017 due to a CFP title match between Georgia and Alabama.
What about a 2018 study by Louisiana State University economists that found that judges handed down harsher penalties after their favorite soccer team suffered a loss or if a defendant was affiliated with a rival university? And don’t forget Chief Justice John Roberts, who in 2008 served as a guest judge for a competition among law students at the University of Florida and made sure to stay up all weekend to catch Tim Tebow and the Gators for the Miami Hurricanes. I was there and met him in the president’s suite. He stayed in the whole game.
Being a college football fan is not a crime, but the potential consequences of such a fan base should be noted. As Troy/CSRI research shows, judges with deep ties to college football—or geographic regions where college football is more like religion than fandom—may have been the biggest opponents of legal challenges against the NCAA over the past four decades.
Advocates, take note.
Core, a former college football employee, is an assistant professor in the School of Hospitality, Sports and Tourism Management at the University of Troy. More information about CSRI and their annual Adjusted Graduation Gap Reports can be found at www.csri.org.
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