Nebraska Players Sue Big Ten Over Football Decision

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Eight University of Nebraska football players took their frustration to a legal level Thursday, filing a lawsuit against the Big Ten Conference in an effort to play sports this fall.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, the 13-page complaint was filed in Lancaster County Court in Nebraska, with attorney Mike Flood saying it’s not about money and the players won’t accept damages of $75,000 or greater. The complaint alleges the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the 2020-21 fall sports season due to COVID-19 was unjustified, a breach of contract, a declaratory judgment and wrongful interference with business expectations.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of frustration from Big Ten players and parents. Nebraska has been a voice of frustration since the Big Ten’s Aug. 11 decision to postpone fall sports and pursue a season later this school year. The parents of players from 11 of the 14 players have written letters to the conference requesting more information.

Related content: Growing Big Ten Parent Coalition Targets Commissioner

The players took a bigger role Thursday, with Garrett Snodgrass, Garrett Nelson, Ethan Piper, Noa Pola-Gates, Alante Brown, Brant Banks, Brig Banks and Jackson Hannah being represented in the lawsuit.

“Our Clients want to know whether there was a vote and the details of any vote, and whether the Big Ten followed its own rules in reaching its decision,” Flood said, according to the World-Herald. “Sadly, these student-athletes have no other recourse than filing a lawsuit against their conference.”

According to ESPN, the suit says athletes have "the right to expect the Big Ten will follow its own governing documents and all of its other rules, regulations and guidelines; will not make arbitrary and capricious decisions; and when a vote on a decision as momentous as canceling all fall sports is announced, will conduct an actual vote." 

The three counts against the Big Ten, according to the World-Herald, are:

  • Wrongful interference with business expectations. For football student-athletes, the season is a chance to work toward a career as a professional player as well as develop personal brands for eventual monetary gain under name/image/likeness legislation. Canceling the fall campaign based on what is now outdated or inaccurate medical information — while not taking into account why players are actually safer in a team environment that tests them regularly — cannot be justified.
  • Breach of contract. The league — through reputation, public statements and its own documents — has established that it exists in part to benefit its student-athletes. It potentially violated that contract by not holding a vote within its Council of Presidents and Chancellors.
  • Declaratory judgment. The Big Ten not voting on the decision, or at least being unwilling and/or unable to produce records of such a vote, violates its governing documents. The decision should be invalid and unenforceable.

The Big Ten responded with a statement, which was posted on Twitter by ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg.

"The Big Ten Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors overwhelmingly voted to postpone the fall sports season based on medical concerns and in the best interest of the health and safety of our student athletes. This was an important decision for our 14 member institutions and the surrounding communities.

"We share the disappointment that some student-athletes and their families are feeling. However, this lawsuit has no merit and we will defend the decision to protect all student-athletes as we navigate through this global pandemic. We are actively considering options to get back to competition and look forward to doing so when it is safe to play."

The World-Herald reported during a 30-minute virtual hearing on Thursday, Big Ten rep Andrew Luger said there’s no precedent for a court to overturn the decision of a governing body.

“We are of the strong view that there is no claim here,” Luger told Judge Susan Strong. “Eight students out of hundreds — eight students from one school out of 14 — are seeking to overturn a decision that will affect thousands of people. And they are doing so under the most stretched legal theories that one can imagine.

“These plaintiffs disagree, I understand that. But that’s not a basis to pick apart (Big Ten) internal processes, to get documents that nobody has a basis to see, for a lawsuit that we are firmly convinced will fail on the merits.”

Related content: Big Ten Commissioner: Decision to Cancel Fall is Final

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren brought more clarity to the conference’s decision with an Aug. 19 open letter.

“I write on this occasion to share with you additional information regarding the Big Ten Conference’s decision to postpone the 2020-21 fall sports season,” Warren’s letter reads. “We thoroughly understand and deeply value what sports mean to our student-athletes, their families, our coaches and our fans. The vote by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C) was overwhelmingly in support of postponing fall sports and will not be revisited. The decision was thorough and deliberative, and based on sound feedback, guidance and advice from medical experts.”

Warren said the league assembled a Return to Competition Task Force to work with medical experts to develop a plan to return to competition “as soon as it is safe to do so.”  

Related content: Big Ten ADs Wanted to Play Football; Some Still Trying

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