Huskers players sue Big Ten over postponement

  • College football reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
  • Graduate of Northwestern University.

Eight Nebraska football players on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the Big Ten, seeking to invalidate the league’s postponement of the fall football season and to award damages.

The suit, filed Thursday in Lancaster County District Court, alleges that the Big Ten is in breach of contract by not following its governing documents, under which athletes are third-party beneficiaries. The athletes, according to the suit, have “the right to expect the Big Ten will follow its own governing documents and all of its other rules, regulations and guidelines; will not make arbitrary and capricious decisions; and when a vote on a decision as momentous as canceling all fall sports is announced, will conduct an actual vote.” The lawsuit cites public statements from Minnesota president Joan Gabel and Michigan State president Samuel Stanley, and questions whether a formal vote to postpone took place among the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors.

League commissioner Kevin Warren told ESPN and other outlets on Aug. 18 that a vote did, in fact, take place. Warren also said the decision to postpone will not be revisited. The Big Ten did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The failure of the Big Ten to hold a vote on the purported decision to cancel the 2020 fall football season is a violation of the governing documents and the decision should be declared invalid and unenforceable,” the players’ lawsuit reads.

Garrett Snodgrass, Garrett Nelson, Ethan Piper, Noa Pola-Gates, Alante Brown, Jackson Hannah and Brant and Brig Banks filed the lawsuit, which does not seek damages greater than $75,000 but states that the Big Ten’s postponement hurts the players’ future football prospects and their ability to market and brand themselves. The Big Ten, which postponed its fall season on Aug. 11, is accused of basing the decision on “flawed data,” including “a study of the health effects of COVID-19 that involved COVID-impacted patients” who are older and in worse physical condition than the Nebraska players.

“This lawsuit isn’t about money or damages, it’s about real-life relief,” Mike Flood, the players’ attorney, said in a prepared statement. “These student-athletes have followed all the precautions, underwent regular testing and lived according to the prescribed guidelines … for the chance to play football in September. On Aug. 11, six days after announcing the fall football schedule, a decision was made to cancel everything with vague reasoning and no explanation.”

Flood on Aug. 18 sent a letter to the Big Ten on behalf of 20 Nebraska parents, seeking documents, data and other information surrounding the league’s decision to postpone the fall season. The letter set a deadline of Monday to respond or further legal action was possible.

Friday, the Big Ten issued a statement on their decision.

“The Big Ten Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors overwhelmingly voted to postpone the fall sports season based on medical concerns and in the best interest of the health and safety of our student-athletes. This was an important decision for our 14 member institutions and the surrounding communities.

“We share the disappointment that some student-athletes and their families are feeling. However, this lawsuit has no merit and we will defend the decision to protect all student-athletes as we navigate through this global pandemic. We are actively considering options to get back to competition and look forward to doing so when it is safe to play.”

The University of Nebraska strongly opposed the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the fall football season and briefly explored fall competition options outside the league. Athletic director Bill Moos told local media outlets that all of the Big Ten’s athletic directors favored continuing to push toward a fall season.

“Sadly, these students have no other recourse than filing a lawsuit against their conference,” Flood said. “Our clients must take their claims to the courthouse to find the justice and fairness they have been denied.”

Amy Pola-Gates, the mother of Nebraska safety Noa Pola-Gates, one of the athletes whose name is on the lawsuit, said she has accepted the Big Ten’s decision to postpone the season. She rearranged her pre-booked flights to Huskers games. The purpose of the lawsuit, she said, isn’t a reversal of the Big Ten’s decision, it’s a legal push for more clarity as to why it was postponed.

“We still need answers,” she said. “If we have to fight for them, then we have to fight for answers,” she said.

“Our key objective really is transparency,” she said. ” … No one’s been clear. No one’s been specific. We think our boys deserve that, clear, specific and honesty. I understand the cancellation of the season. I, too, am worried about COVID-19. Of course I don’t want my son to get sick. I don’t want other children to get sick. Those are all very valid reasons, but they’re not telling us where they got their information or what data they’re going off of. Everyone just says, ‘Oh, because I said so,’ and that doesn’t work for us.”

“A letter went out and it was ignored,” Pola-Gates said. “Sometimes you just have to use other resources to get answers. When you’re ignored by the bigwigs, you have to say, ‘Hey, I’m here, and scream.’ This is my scream, ‘please hear me.'”

Not all of the Nebraska parents are troubled by the Big Ten’s decision to postpone. Kim Newsome, mother of sophomore cornerback Quinton Newsome, said there are “a lot” of Huskers parents — and other Big Ten parents — who agree with the league.

“The students are back at school and the cases are just multiplying,” Newsome said. “I would understand if my kid was in a bubble. But there’s no way to put 100-and-some players from these teams in a little bubble. A lot of them are teenagers. They’re not going to pay attention to the rules, they’re just not going to do it. They need constant supervision. And they don’t have constant supervision. The staff and coaches, they have a life themselves.

“Yeah, I would love to see my kid play, but then again, at what risk to his life, his safety, long-term effects?” she said. “… The kids, of course they want to play. But we as parents, they may be adults, but we still have to give them guidance and advise them on life decisions. The people making the most stink about it are not looking at the big picture. They’re looking at the now, not the latter days. I want my child to live a long life. I don’t want him to have health conditions down the line.”

ESPN’s Heather Dinich contributed to this report.

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