In a landmark decision, an Ohio judge today ruled in favor of Oklahoma State lefthander Andrew Oliver in his lawsuit against the NCAA. Erie County judge Tyge M. Tone ruled that the NCAA cannot restrict a player's right to have legal representation when negotiating a professional contract and awarded an injunction to restore Oliver's eligibility. The decision invalidated the NCAA's "no agent" and "restitution" rules
"I'm ecstatic," said Rick Johnson, Oliver's lawyer, on Thursday night. "We wanted three things–to have those two rules thrown out and to have Andy's eligibility restored–and we got all of them . . . To have a complete win–hardly ever do you win everything. To have a complete win is as unusual in law as it is anywhere else. Having a complete win here is not an anomaly–it shows you how one-sided the argument is here. The NCAA is a bully, and they've been beating up on these kids and these schools for years, and everybody's been taking it. I can't believe people put up with it, I really can't."
Oliver was originally ruled ineligible by Oklahoma State (under NCAA pressure) on the eve of OSU's 2008 regional opener for violating the NCAA's "no agent" rule (NCAA Bylaw 22.214.171.124) as a high school senior, when the Twins drafted him in the 17th round and his advisors had contact with the organization on his behalf. Essentially, Oliver was punished for having his advisor/lawyer, Tim Barratta, present during a contract negotiation. But as Tone pointed out in his decision, the NCAA bylaws permit student-athletes to have attorneys, and the NCAA is not authorized to prevent attorneys from providing their clients with competent legal service.
"For a student-athlete to be permitted to have an attorney and then to tell that student athlete that his attorney cannot be present during the discussion of an offer from a professional organization, is akin to hiring a doctor but the doctor is told by the hospital board and the insurance company that he (the doctor) cannot be present when the patient meets with a surgeon because the conference may improve his patient's decision making power," Tone wrote in the decision. "Bylaw 126.96.36.199 is unreliable (capricious) and illogical (arbitrary) and indeed stifles what attorneys are trained and retained to do."
Thursday's ruling means Oliver will likely be able to participate in Oklahoma State's season opener against Brigham Young on Feb. 20, and Oklahoma State need not fear consequences of the "restitution" rule. Under that rule, the NCAA could penalize OSU after the fact for any games Oliver participates in if today's ruling were to be reversed later on appeal. But Tone wrote in the decision that the "restitution" rule (also known as NCAA Bylaw 19.7) is "overreaching and interferes with the judicial power of the court system."
Oklahoma State, which filed an appeal with the NCAA to restore Oliver's eligibility in the fall, issued a statement Thursday night in response to the decision.
"We are reviewing the decision from the court in Ohio and will determine a course of action at the appropriate time," OSU director of communications Gary Shutt said in the statement.
The NCAA issued its own statement through spokeswoman Stacey Osburn:
"We are disappointed in the judge's ruling. The bylaws related to agent relationships are important principles our colleges and universities have established to protect and preserve amateurism standards. We intend to seek a review of the decision by a higher court, and we are hopeful these significant standards will be preserved."
Tone addressed the "amateurism" issue in his decision.
"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," the judge wrote. "However, to suggest that Bylaw 188.8.131.52 accomplishes that purpose by instructing a student-athlete that his attorney cannot do what he has hired him or her to do, is simply illegitimate . . . no entity, other than that one designated by the state, can dictate to an attorney where, what, how or when he should represent his client. With all due respect, surely that decision shall not be determined by the NCAA and its member institutions, no matter what the Defendant utters is the purpose of the rule."
The jury trial phase of the case, to determine any monetary damages the NCAA might owe Oliver, will begin on March 20.
In the meantime, Oliver can focus again on baseball.
"Andy's delighted to have his life back," Johnson said. "This is not just him–this is a team sport. He's delighted to have his team's life back, his coaches' life back. It's not just Andy that lost his postseason last year, it's his whole team, and he's just delighted that now there's no uncertainty about who was right and wrong. The NCAA ruined 35 kids' dreams last year. That's a lot of harm."