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OSU lawsuit against Big Ten holds little weight, but could have other benefits

A University of Toledo law professor says the potential lawsuit might not be successful but could force schools to move forward on season.
Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 7:23 PM EDT
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - This week would typically be the third week of the Big Ten Conference football season, but the schools are currently watching other leagues and conferences play from the sidelines. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office is now exploring whether The Ohio State University can sue the Big Ten and conference schools to try and recoup the potential loss of millions of dollars in television revenue should stadiums remain quiet.

Speaking to The Columbus Dispatch last week, Yost said the Big Ten’s vote forcing Ohio State to not play football games would be a violation of its covenant. A University of Toledo law professor, however, is casting doubt on whether such a lawsuit would be successful.

“An athletic conference is a voluntary association and what courts tend to do is stay out of the internal decision making of voluntary associations,” says Geoffrey Rapp, University of Toledo Associate Dean and Professor in the College of Law. “They only review a decision like that if it were fraudulent, illegal, or clearly violated the organizations governing documents and rules, and I don’t think there’s a good argument that occurred here.”

Sports Law is one of Rapp’s research interests and despite his concerns, he says a potential lawsuit brought by Ohio State against the Big Ten and its schools could have its benefits outside of the courtroom.

“One of the things a lawsuit does is threaten to air the dirty laundry of an organization that might not want to have that aired,” Rapp explains. “So merely being prepared for the lawsuit might lead some schools that are wavering on how to proceed to embrace the idea of moving forward.”

Ohio State’s new president, Kristina Johnson was one of three conference presidents and chancellors who voted last month against canceling the fall football season.

“The information that the Big Ten had available to it all of that is the kind of thing you can ask witnesses about," Rapp said. "And it can be ugly for schools that are supposed to be partners in a joint venture like this to be at each other’s throats not on the field but in a business or policy sense.”

At this time, the Columbus campus will continue to stay quiet on Saturdays this fall.

“If you manage to get a case like this in front of a jury in Columbus, Ohio, or elsewhere in the State of Ohio, I don’t know if I’d want to take my chances if I were the Big Ten," Rapp said. "A hometown judge or a hometown jury could end up finding some rights were infringed.”

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