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Ohio court enjoins NCAA rule prohibiting legal representation for amateur athletes

[JURIST] A judge for the Erie County Court of Common Pleas in Ohio issued a permanent injunction [opinion, PDF] Thursday against a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) [official website] bylaw that restricted the eligibility of student baseball players who were assisted by legal counsel during negotiations with professional baseball clubs. The case, Oliver v. NCAA, concerned an Ohio resident playing collegiate baseball at Oklahoma State University (OSU) [official website] who had been drafted but never signed with the Minnesota Twins [official website] Major League Baseball franchise. The bylaw affected collegiate baseball players who were drafted by Major League Baseball (MLB) [official website] teams prior to enrolling in college, and who hired attorneys to represent them during negotiations between the drafted player and the MLB team. According to the bylaw, the player's status as an amateur athlete would not be negatively impacted by lawyer's representation, provided that the lawyer did not directly participate in the negotiations. The court granted a permanent injunction against the NCAA bylaw, holding that it is arbitrary and capricious and against public policy because it interfered with and limited the player's ability to negotiate a contract effectively. In finding for the plaintiff, Judge Tygh Tone wrote:

The process advanced by the NCAA hinders representation provided by legal counsel creating an atmosphere fraught with ethical dilemmas and pitfalls that an attorney consulting a student-athlete must encounter. Will the attorney be able to advance what is best for the client or will a neutral party, the NCAA, tie his hands? What harm could possibly befall the student-athlete if such a rule were not found? What occurs if the parents of a student are attorneys or for that matter sports agents? What would have happened if Tim Baratta [the lawyer hired by the plaintiff] had been in the kitchen or outside or on the patio instead of in the same room as his client when the offer from the Minnesota Twins was made to Plaintiff?

This Court appreciates that a fundamental goal of the member institutions and the Defendant is to preserve the clear line of demarcation between amateurism and professionalism. However, to suggest that Bylaw accomplishes that purpose by instructing a student-athlete that his attorney cannot do what he was [sic] hired him or her to do, is simply illegitimate.
The NCAA indicated in a statement [NYT report] that it would appeal Thursday's ruling to a higher court.

Judge Tone's ruling in Oliver v. NCAA could have significant impact on both collegiate baseball and the signing of drafted players by professional clubs, as well as the NCAA's overarching player-eligibility scheme. Currently, many high school players attempt to negotiate professional contracts without the substantial assistance of legal advisers in order to maintain NCAA eligibility. The repeal of the NCAA bylaw could lead to an increase in the number of drafted amateur players signing professional contracts immediately after high school due to the assistance of legal counsel in the negotiating process. Such an increase would also lead to a decreasing number of high-quality amateur baseball players enrolling in NCAA collegiate baseball programs. Unlike student-athletes in other NCAA sports, baseball players are eligible to be drafted after graduating from high school [AP report].

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