Court Ruling Checks NCAA as It Seeks to Punish College Basketball Player Who Bet on Games

Apr 5, 2024

A federal judge from the District of New Jersey delivered a victory to a college basketball player, who sought an ex parte temporary restraining order (TRO) that required the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to reinstate his eligibility to participate in Division I collegiate athletic competition, effective in early February.

By way of background, the NCAA suspended Jeremiah Williams after he made a series of bets on various college and professional sporting events that totaled approximately $320 from December 2022 to February 2023 when he was a basketball player at Iowa State University (ISU). Of note, he had previously transferred from Temple University to ISU. Last spring, Williams transferred from ISU to Rutgers University. In September 2023, he pled guilty to underage gambling.

The NCAA informed Williams in the off-season that as a result of his admitted sports betting, it would impose a suspension of 50% of one basketball season, or 15 games. Aware of this, Williams voluntarily sat out for the first 20 games of the Rutgers season.

However, a December 18, 2023 ruling out of the Northern District of West Virginia complicated matters after that court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the NCAA from enforcing the Transfer Eligibility Rule “until a full and final trial and decision on the merits.” The old rule required college basketball players who transferred more than one time to sit out a season at the third school.

At the time of the West Virginia ruling, Williams had already voluntarily sat out nine games to start the season at Rutgers because of his sports betting offense.

On January 31, 2024, the NCAA officially imposed a 15-game suspension on Williams for violating its sports-wagering rule while he was a student-athlete at ISU. The NCAA refused to credit Williams with the nine games he sat out that pre-date the West Virginia Order, arguing that he must serve his suspension based on games after the West Virginia Order.

“The importance of the NCAA’s position is that it would render Williams ineligible to play until February 18, 2024,” wrote the court, noting that Williams was seeking to play in the next game on February 3.

In considering Williams’ request for a TRO, the court first sought to determine whether Williams had demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. A plaintiff must show that they “can win on the merits (which requires a showing of significantly better than negligible, but not necessarily more likely than not).” Riley v. City of Harrisburg, 858 F.3d 173, 179 (3d Cir. 2017).

The instant court noted, “Williams both alleges and argues that the NCAA’s refusal to credit him for the games he sat out before the West Virginia Order was entered is effectively attempting to enforce the now-unenforceable Transfer Rule. The Court agrees.

“The burden of the Court’s analysis with respect to the likelihood that Williams will succeed on the merits of a Sherman Act claim is substantially lessened by the well-reasoned (albeit non-binding) decision from the district court from West Virginia. That district court has already ably concluded that there is a ‘strong likelihood’ that the Transfer Rule violates Section 1 of the Sherman Act. This Court reaches the same conclusion for the reasons provided by the West Virginia district court and highlighted by Williams in his submission with respect to the relevant elements of his antitrust claim. All that remains for this Court to determine is whether the NCAA’s actions in this case equate to an attempt to enforce the Transfer Rule.

“Based on the record, the arithmetic appears relatively straightforward. The NCAA has suspended Williams for 15 games for sports-betting. He sat out for 20 games. The NCAA has conceded that, like Williams, it was counting his sit-outs from the beginning of the season, rather than from when it issued its suspension. Williams should therefore, in the absence of some second reason, be eligible to play tomorrow. The NCAA has a second reason: the Transfer Rule. The problem for the NCAA is that its invocation of the Transfer Rule now, in an attempt to discredit Williams’ nine games before the West Virginia Order, amounts to an impermissible attempt to enforce the Transfer Rule. This is a violation of the West Virginia Order’s preliminary injunction, whose stated purpose was to prevent the NCAA from engaging in anti-competitive conduct.

“For these reasons the Court finds that Williams has shown the requisite likelihood of success with respect to his Sherman Act claim (Count I).”

Next, the court considered the second factor to be considered when weighing a TRO, irreparable harm.

To that end, the court reasoned, “Were the NCAA not enjoined, Williams would be forced to forego four more games, depriving him of the opportunity to develop his skills and his in-game rapport with his teammates, further his team’s post-season hopes, to market his name and likeness, and to showcase his abilities to future employers.” The court further wrote, “His next game is tomorrow afternoon, less than 24 hours away. For these reasons, the Court finds that Williams has shown irreparable harm that is both substantial and immediate.”

Then, the court addressed factor three.

“For the third factor, the Court balances the equities as between the parties. As set forth above, the Williams is likely to suffer substantial, immediate, and irreparable harm should he be prevented from playing. The NCAA, by contrast, would suffer little harm insofar as, should they later succeed on the merits, they can resume enforcement of Williams’s suspension. Accordingly, the Court finds that the balance of the equities weighs heavily in Williams’s favor.”

Finally, the court held that granting the TRO would be in the “public’s interest.”

Jeremiah Williams v. NCAA; D.N.J.; Civil Action No. 24-614 (ZNQ) (JBD), 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18479 *; 2024 WL 397760; 2/2/24

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