Former college running back sues NCAA over scholarship caps

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and five of college football’s regional conferences were sued by a former West Virginia University player who claims they agreed to limit the value of scholarships to less than the actual cost of attendance.

Shawne Alston, who played running back for West Virginia, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in San Francisco, saying he took out a $5,500 loan to make up the difference between a full scholarship — limited to tuition, academic fees, room, board and books — and what he had to pay.

Top-tier college football is a “highly competitive marketplace” in which the value of scholarships “would rise to at least cover the full cost of attendance, and likely much more,” but for the NCAA’s limits, according to the complaint, which says the caps violate antitrust law.

Stacey Osburn, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis-based NCAA, the governing body of major college sports, declined to comment on the lawsuit because she hadn’t reviewed the filing.

The suit follows efforts by college athletes to secure greater control over their working conditions and the use of their likenesses on television and in video games. A group of Northwestern University football players last month asked the National Labor Relations Board to recognize them as employees of the school, a step toward possible unionization.

Alston is seeking to sue on behalf of all scholarship athletes from the past four years who played football in the Pacific 12, Big Ten, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big Twelve conferences. He’s asking the court to void caps on financial aid and to award damages covering the gap between the cost of attendance and scholarship awards. Such damages could be tripled under antitrust law.

In October 2011, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a rule allowing conferences to provide athletes a $2,000 stipend. They suspended the rule less than two months later after complaints from more than 100 schools. It’s still under discussion, Osburn said.

Seattle-based law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP and Los Angeles-based Pearson, Simon & Warshaw LLP filed the lawsuit.

Hagens Berman brought another scholarship case in 2010 against the NCAA, alleging that the organization’s limit on the number of football scholarships a Division I school can award each year violates antitrust law.

A judge dismissed the initial complaint, saying the relevant commercial market for college athlete labor was too broad. A revised complaint limited the market to football and survived a motion to dismiss. Alston’s lawsuit narrows its scope even further, to five specific conferences within top-tier college football.

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