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A federal judge on Friday temporarily suspended a ban on the NCAA signing financial deals with fan groups, dealing a major blow to the NCAA’s attempts to prevent universities and their supporters from paying athletes to play at their schools.

The notion of amateurism has been a fundamental principle of the NCAA, but Judge Clifton L. Corker said that the case filed by the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia is important enough for the governing body of college sports not to impose any restrictions on name signing, image and likeness (NIL) offers before joining programs. The court’s order applies to all athletes in all states and is effective immediately.

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Mandel: Party’s over, NCAA pay-for-play recruiting is here, and it was inevitable.

The order is not a final decision on the matter, but the judge’s decision is sure to open the floodgates for more recruits across the country to sign NIL agreements without fear of repercussions. Since various states’ NIL laws took effect in 2021, the NCAA has tried to defend and enforce its own policies, aimed at using NIL agreements to get recruits to sign with a specific program and the core idea of ​​college athletes. They should not be paid based on their athletic ability.

“The NCAA’s ban violates federal antitrust laws and harms student-athletes,” Corker wrote in the decision.

NCAA spokeswoman Saquandra Heath said in a statement that the judge’s decision further complicates the rules landscape of college sports.

“Overturning rules supported by member schools would exacerbate an already chaotic college environment, reducing protections for student-athletes from exploitation,” Heath said. “The NCAA fully supports student-athletes monetizing their names, images and likenesses and is making changes to provide more benefits to student-athletes, but a clear partnership with Congress is necessary to stabilize the endless state laws and court opinions. For the future of all college athletes instead of

NCAA rules currently allow registered athletes to sign NIL agreements with both individual boosters and teams, which are booster groups that pool resources before signing athletes to contracts. The NCAA does not allow prospective athletes — high school athletes or transfers — to sign such agreements, believing it is a recruiting incentive.

On January 31, the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia filed a joint lawsuit against the NCAA in US District Court challenging the organization’s ban on NIL incentives in recruiting. The lawsuit comes a day after news broke that the NCAA was investigating the recruiting activities of the University of Tennessee and the Spire Sports team — unofficially affiliated with Volunteer Athletics — specifically around five-star pro Niko Imaleava, who eventually committed to Tennessee in January 2023. .

Tom Mars, a lawyer who worked with the Tennessee Joint Task Force on the case, said the importance of the order cannot be overstated.

“With this being the first domino to fall, what happened to the other pending antitrust cases now seems inevitable. And the NCAA lawyers need to know that,” Mars said.

The NCAA has previously responded to the lawsuit by saying states have no standing to overturn the NCAA’s rules, in part because Tennessee’s own state law prohibits NIL recruiting. The NCAA argued that the purpose of injunctive relief is to preserve the status quo.

Earlier this month, Corker suggested a temporary restraining order might not be necessary, but said the states could win their lawsuit against the NCAA. Corker said in a court order on Friday that “the NCAA will allow student-athletes to earn profits from the NFL.” A student-athlete has failed to demonstrate how the use of such an agreement defeats the purpose of preserving amateurism.

The judge agreed with the NCAA that maintaining competitive balance is a legitimate effort, but that distributing competition equally to NCAA member schools is “exactly the type of competitive behavior” that the antitrust statute seeks to prevent by “restricting trade.”

Friday’s court order is another crack at the foundation of the NCAA, which is friendlier than ever to its opponents in a legal environment with multiple fronts and countless court hearings in the future.

In the year In a 2021 fall at the U.S. Supreme Court, the NCAA faced multiple lawsuits alleging the organization violated federal antitrust laws. They are still working through various courts. College sports’ governing body has faced individual challenges to the rules.

In December, attorneys general of seven states, including Ohio, challenged an NCAA rule that would have prevented athletes from playing immediately after multiple transfers. After the NCAA received a temporary restraining order to prevent it from enforcing the law, the NCAA agreed to change the order to a preliminary injunction, allowing all multi-season transfers to play unsettled at the end of the school year.

The NCAA is the subject of a complaint and unfair labor practice lawsuit under the National Labor Relations Act, which raises the question of whether athletes should be recognized as employees. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Los Angeles.

As NCAA lawyers continue to challenge the organization’s long-term business model, Friday’s order creates an entirely new legal environment in the recruiting space. Athletes and their representatives can now meet and sign contracts with teams without fear of an NCAA investigation or possible loss of future eligibility. Although the preliminary injunction is temporary, it will result in a significant increase in NIL deals in front of high school recruiters and players in transfer portals to convince athletes to sign with a particular school. Before Friday, NCAA rules allowed coaches and teams to share information about a prospect’s earning potential, but could not sign prospects to contracts before signing. That’s not the case now.

The NCAA has tried for years to use the problems in the courts and in the statehouse to lobby Congress for federal rules to protect how it operates college sports. NCAA leaders want protections from antitrust regulation, consistency in NIL rules and strict definitions of athletes as non-employees. Several legislative proposals and double-digit hearings have been introduced, but no bill has made it out of committee.

Several senators and representatives have publicly stated that cleaning up the NCAA’s mess is not a top priority.

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(Photo: Mitchell Leighton/Getty Images)