Top college tennis player sues NCAA to challenge tournament prize restrictions

In the hall of mirrors that is the National Collegiate Athletic Association rulebook on how college athletes can and cannot earn money, there is one rule that may be the most hard-to-fathom of all.  

A quarterback, or any other sort of athlete, can collect a seven-figure payment for having their picture appear on a billboard, or for signing autographs at a local car dealership, under the NCAA’s name, image and likeness (NIL) rules. 

But a college tennis player who earns a spot at a prestigious tournament and wins money for participating in, or even winning, the event, can’t keep that money, with only the most minor of exceptions. Same goes for runners and swimmers, wrestlers and gymnasts, skiers and fencers, bowlers and triathletes, and athletes in equestrian sports and riflery.

It’s a rule that has cost Reese Brantmeier, a student at the University of North Carolina who is currently ranked No 2 in singles and No 1 in doubles (with partner Elizabeth Scotty) by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, tens of thousands of dollars over the past five years. Brantmeier, a 19-year-old from Wisconsin, started playing small professional tournaments at 14, forgoing the small payments she could have received so she could maintain her college eligibility. 

Then, in 2021, Brantmeier finished second in the U.S. junior national tournament. That earned her a spot in the qualifying competition for the U.S. Open. 

She won two matches there before losing one round shy of the main draw — good for $49,000 in prize money. She did not accept it, other than the portion that covered her expenses, so that she could maintain her college eligibility. But sometime between the NCAA sidelining her for the season while they challenged the accounting of her expenses during that U.S. Open run, and a meniscus tear in her knee last month that required surgery and caused her to miss the rest of this season, Brantmeier decided to add her name to the growing list of athletes challenging an NCAA rulebook they view as unfair and illegal. 

On Monday, Brantmeier filed a lawsuit against the NCAA in U.S. District Court in North Carolina, asking the judiciary to prohibit the NCAA from prohibiting individual sport athletes like her from collecting prize money.

“It’s ridiculous to watch basketball and football players earning hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that is OK under the name, image and likeness (NIL) rules, and then see us work just as hard and say we can’t earn money directly from our sport,” Brantmeier said in an interview last week. 

The NCAA did not return a message seeking comment on the rule Brantmeier is challenging.

Seemingly every month now, the organization faces another action that threatens to chip away further at what was once ironclad control over the gifted young athletes who compete and earn billions of dollars for its member institutions.

Brantmeier is being represented by the Raleigh, North Carolina law firm Miller, Monroe & Plyler, and Joel Lulla, an attorney and longtime sports executive who now teaches at the University of Texas. 

“The NCAA should be working to support and encourage student-athletes in individual sports to compete in the highest and most prestigious competitions in their respective sports, including non-NCAA events,” the lawyers wrote in their complaint. “Yet, for far too long, through its rules and regulations on prizes and expenses, the NCAA has acted to hinder and impede student-athletes in such pursuits.”

The lawsuit, if successful, could have far-reaching implications outside the U.S., as American college sports becomes increasingly international — especially tennis. The college game is now considered a far more viable path to the professional ranks than it was a decade ago.

The complaint points out a number of seemingly arbitrary exceptions to the rules. For instance, if collegiate athletes earn a medal at the Olympics, they can keep the bonus payment from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, yet money from the United States Tennis Association for winning matches is off-limits.  

Brantmeier’s effort has the support of the coaching staff of her school’s tennis team, which she helped lead to the NCAA championship last year, even though North Carolina is a member institution of the NCAA, the target of the lawsuit.   

Brantmeier, second right, with her national title-winning North Carolina teammates (Preston Mack/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

One of Brantmeier’s teammates, Fiona Crawley, a reigning NCAA doubles champion, qualified for the main draw at the U.S. Open in September in both singles and doubles and had to turn down roughly $80,000 in prize money to maintain eligibility for her senior year at North Carolina. 

I’ve worked my ass off this week and it would be unreal to make some money when there’s football, basketball players making millions of dollars on NIL deals,” Crawley said in New York last summer, referring to the rules on name, image and likeness sponsorships. “And I can’t take the money that I’ve worked so hard to try to get this week.”

Crawley, a senior English and comparative literature major who is set to graduate this spring, is not part of Brantmeier’s lawsuit.

Tyler Thomson, associate head coach of North Carolina’s women’s tennis teams, said in an interview on Friday that he had been encouraging Brantmeier to “make some noise” about the rule since she was prohibited from accepting the bulk of the money she earned at the U.S. Open three years ago.

I can’t think of another situation where an organization can have a draconian quid pro quo where you are prohibited from accepting money you earned with your own sweat,” Thomson said. “I just think it’s really wrong, and especially in the age of NIL.”

He said he would go one step further, and allow any college-age athlete to compete for a school where they were enrolled, regardless of how much money they have earned. “Reese will come up against this situation again,” Thomson said. “I want her to be able to accept the money that she has earned.”

So does Brantmeier.

The daughter of a family-practice physician and a school librarian, Brantmeier considered turning professional rather than attending college. 

Cold Spring, her hometown in Wisconsin, has a population of about 750 and is hardly a tennis hotbed. Her parents don’t play tennis. A childhood friend introduced her to the sport. Her mother drove her an hour each way to practice at the closest indoor facility before school, and then again after it.

Brantmeier spent much of her high school years training at the United States Tennis Association’s training center in Orlando, Florida, where she became one of the top juniors in the country. The pros beckoned. However, she had roughly 200 scholarship offers and felt attending a top school and earning a degree would provide her with a safety net if she did not make it in tennis.

“My family values education,” said Brantmeier, who is a double major in exercise and sport science and studio art. “Tennis has zero guarantees. You have no idea when you are going to make money.” 

(Preston Mack/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

This will not be her first legal battle with the NCAA, with the organization having challenged those expenses she claimed for the 2021 U.S. Open.

Brantmeier and her mother purchased a portable scanner to track and catalog receipts incurred during competitions. The NCAA asserted that was an unnecessary expense; the organization objected to Brantmeier’s expense for a racket restringing because it took place 15 days before the competition — 24 hours outside a 14-day pre-competition window that is generally applied; officials also challenged the inclusion of Brantmeier’s mother’s share of lodging expenses in New York City, saying it was not an actual and necessary expense, even though Brantmeier was 16 years old at the time.

While the dispute played out, Brantmeier had to sit out the fall 2022 season, fearing she would be declared ineligible and forcing North Carolina to forfeit matches she had participated in. She and the NCAA finally settled the dispute, with the Brantmeiers agreeing to contribute $5,100 to charity.

That fight now seems like a warm-up for this next one.

“A lot of people think this is something that needs to change,” Brantmeier said. “I’ve got this opportunity to do that — if not for me then for someone else.”

Brantmeier is not suing for damages or to recoup any money she has given up. She is merely suing to get the rule changed for other talented collegiate players or prospects who win money in the future.

(Top photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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