By Dionne Cordell-Whitney
CHICAGO (CN) – A student-athlete claims in court that his college and the NCAA violated antitrust laws by limiting his ability to transfer to other Division I schools, while engaging in “shady” conduct to kick him off the basketball team.
John “Johnnie” Vassar filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA and Northwestern University in Chicago federal court on Monday.
In 2014, Vassar joined Northwestern University on a full multi-year basketball grant-in-aid that guaranteed him a scholarship during the entire period of his eligibility.
Prior to enrolling at Northwestern University, Vassar says he was recruited by numerous colleges out of high school and was offered athletic scholarships by numerous NCAA Division I men’s basketball schools.
In 2015, however, Vassar says he was told by Northwestern University that he would no longer have a spot on the basketball team due to no fault of his own. He claims he was informed this year that his basketball scholarship would be converted to an academic scholarship in order to release him as a “counter.”
“To secure Johnnie’s athletic scholarship so that the school could provide it to another player given the Northwestern-agreed and NCAA-imposed 13-scholarship limit, Northwestern engaged in a shady, dirty, and underhanded pattern of behavior over the course of a year,” the complaint states.
Vassar gives examples of the alleged misconduct in his 49-page complaint, including that he was berated by the basketball team’s head coach and was told he “sucked” at basketball and had no future with the team.
Vassar was called into the athletics offices under the guise that he was to pick up a request contact form, but he was instead pressured to sign a blank “roster deletion” form saying he would be “voluntarily withdrawing” from the team, according to his lawsuit.
The basketball player says he was also offered a cash payment to go away and was told that his attorney had signed off on a “Northwestern-proposed” effort to resolve his objections about the school’s actions, when no sign off had actually occurred. Vassar alleges falsified “internship” timecards were also created in an attempt to take away his scholarship.
He claims in his complaint that he was unable to secure a waiver of the NCAA transfer rules after he looked into transferring and received interest from other Division I schools that would have extended offers to him if he was immediately eligible.
Ultimately, all of the schools rejected him or lost interest, the complaint states.
According to the complaint, the NCAA and its member institutions operate under a set of agreed bylaws that restrict the ability of a student-athlete to freely transfer schools.
If a student-athlete is not given permission to transfer, he or she must sit out a full year before playing elsewhere with an athletic scholarship, Vassar says.
“Sitting out a year decreases (or outright eliminates) the ability of athletes to transfer because many schools want athletes who can play immediately, and subjects the athlete to go a year without an athletic scholarship or transfer to a lower level division,” the complaint states. “On the other hand, non-student athletes, even those who can be stars in a given academic field, are free to transfer with a new scholarship without waiting a year.” (Parentheses in original).
Vassar claims that “coaches are free to transfer and often do so to obtain lucrative new contracts at a new school without sitting out a year. Only Division I basketball, football, and hockey players are restricted by the NCAA’s bylaws.”
“The NCAA and its members have thus contracted, combined, and conspired to restrict the movement of players between schools in the relevant market, as well as remove some players from the market altogether,” the lawsuit says.
In response to Vassar’s antitrust claim, Alan Cubbage, vice president of university relations for Northwestern University, said, “We do not believe this claim has any legal merit. We will defend the university vigorously.”
The NCAA did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
Instead of playing Division I basketball and pursuing his dream of playing professional basketball after graduation, Vassar says he is not a member of any Division I basketball team, no longer has an athletic scholarship, and is forced to train on his own in an effort to keep up his skills honed through years of competitive basketball.
Vassar challenges the NCAA rules that prevent Division I basketball players from transferring to other NCAA Division I schools and playing immediately without losing athletic eligibility for a year.
He also seeks trebled damages, punitive damages and actual damages for claims of fraud, breach of contract and Sherman Act violations.
Vassar is represented by Steve Berman with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP.