Judge Grants Transferring College Athletes Immediate Eligibility, But…

Last Updated on December 16, 2023

For the last two weeks, the college sports world has been in a state of flux. There has been a major college athletics story almost every day. First, NCAA President Charlie Baker shocked the college sports world with a proposal to create a new subdivision within Division I college athletics. The proposal seemingly loosened the NCAA’s grip on its bedrock principal of amateurism.

During that same week, the NCAA was sued three times. On Wednesday, one of those lawsuits took a turn the NCAA likely did not expect when a judge in the Northern District of West Virginia issued a TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) on the NCAA’s transfer eligibility rules.

NCAA Transfer Eligibility Rules

In 2021, the NCAA amended their rules to allow college athletes a one-time transfer to another school where the athlete would have immediate eligibility to play their sport. However, if an athlete transfers for a second time the athlete would be required to complete a year of academic residency before being eligible to play their sport. An athlete could seek a waiver for immediate eligibility to be granted only if it fits into one of the NCAA’s accepted exceptions.

Last Thursday, the NCAA was sued by 7 state attorney generals in State of Ohio et. al v. NCAA claiming that the NCAA’s transfer rules violated federal antitrust law. The other six states included in the lawsuit are New York, Illinois, Colorado, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee. This lawsuit came after the NCAA denied immediate eligibility waivers to several college athletes.

State of Ohio et. al v. NCAA

One of the athletes denied eligibility was RaeQuan Battle, a member of The University of West Virginia’s basketball team.  Battle transferred to West Virginia after he lost his coach at his previous school. Battle’s transfer to West Virginia was his second transfer.  Accordingly, he needed a waiver to be eligible to play basketball this season.

Battle and West Virginia applied for a waiver as they believed that his circumstance of losing his coach fit into the criteria to be granted a waiver. However, the NCAA denied his waiver request.

Other athletes at other universities who found themselves in similar situations were too denied their waiver request, thereby prompting the lawsuit that was filed last week. Battle and other athletes testified during the hearing regarding the TRO.

Per the complaint, the plaintiff states sought to stop the NCAA from enforcing their rules requiring second time transfers to complete a year of academic residency before being granted athletic eligibility. The plaintiff states allege that the rules precluding immediately eligibility upon a second transfer unduly restrains an athlete’s ability to engage in the market for their labor and therefore violates federal antitrust law. 

Additionally, the plaintiff states also sought to stop the NCAA from enforcing their “Rule of Restitution.” The “Rule of Restitution” holds that if a player is allowed to engage in athletic competition pursuant to a restraining order or injunction and that restraining order or injunction is overturned, the school can be forced to vacate wins that the player participated in. The plaintiff states sought a temporary restraining order and an injunction on the transfer eligibility rules to invalidate the rules and deem the affected players eligible to play their respective sport.  

On Wednesday, the judge granted the temporary restraining order, thereby temporarily invalidating the NCAA’s transfer eligibility rules, at least for players within the jurisdiction of the court. However, shortly after the ruling the NCAA made a statement indicating that the organization will not enforce its transfer rules for the 14-day period, thereby making the TRO benefit athletes outside of the court’s jurisdiction. This means that schools will not be required to vacate wins where affected athletes complete. However, the NCAA went on to clarify that athletes who compete could lose a year of eligibility if the court’s decision is overturned.

Although the NCAA took the tone-deaf position that players could lose a year of eligibility, several players decided to call the NCAA’s bluff and planned to play their sport.

Tweet from Mit Winter

As players prepared to play, the NCAA agreed to new terms regarding athletes who play pursuant to the TRO. Per the terms of the agreement, the NCAA confirmed that the players will not face any retaliation and that the restraining order would convert to a preliminary injunction that will last for the rest of school year. Athletes who play will use a season of eligibility.  Due to the agreement, the hearing on the preliminary injunction that was scheduled for December 27th is canceled. The issue is not likely to be addressed again until the end of the academic year.

Potential Lasting Effects of the TRO

While the results of the hearing and the NCAA’s newly entered agreement are only temporary, it has the potential to have a lasting effect on the NCAA’s transfer eligibility rules. When determining whether to grant a TRO, the court considers whether the party seeking the TRO has a likelihood of success on the merits of their case.

The ruling on Wednesday indicates that the judge believes that the plaintiff states may be successful with their claim that the NCAA’s transfers rules violate federal antitrust law. If that is so, that would have major ramifications on the transfer process in the future. Additionally, the NCAA’s willingness to enter this agreement could be a signal that the organization realizes that this hill may not be the one to die on.

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