Beth Wilkinson
Beth Wilkinson (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

It would be, as they say in the sports world, a great matchup.

College athletics’ governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has retained noted trial attorney Beth Wilkinson of Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz to serve as lead trial counsel in an antitrust case that could redraw the nation’s sports landscape.

Jenkins v. NCAA is a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of players for Football Bowl Subdivision — the top tier of college football — programs and Division 1 men’s basketball players by powerhouse sports-antitrust attorney Jeffrey Kessler. It aims to invalidate NCAA rules that cap the compensation college athletes can receive for their services, and names the five major athletic conferences as well.

If the plaintiffs were to fully prevail, colleges could face the prospect of bidding for athletes’ services, so the stakes are high. The case could still be dismissed on the defendants’ summary judgment motion, but otherwise will likely go to trial in late 2018.

No wonder then that the NCAA has chosen Wilkinson, regarded as one of the nation’s top trial attorneys, to square off against Kessler, who has prevailed in two landmark antitrust cases against the National Football League, one of which established free agency for the players.

“Beth’s unparalleled track record of success throughout her career in high-profile cases, as well as her past representations in antitrust matters and of the sports and higher education communities, make her especially well-suited to lead the defense of the association as the litigation proceeds,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer.

Wilkinson is a 30-year veteran of trial work, having practiced in internationally known law firms Latham & Watkins and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and also served in the U.S. Department of Justice. She is best known for successfully arguing for the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. And she has an impressive record as a lead defense attorney.

Among her victories are dismissals for Pfizer Inc. in two cases alleging its drug Zoloft caused birth defects, and a fraud and personal injury case against Philip Morris USA. And Wilkinson is no slouch when it comes to sports.

She served as lead counsel for Major League Baseball in a nationwide antitrust class action and had a billion-dollar damages claim eliminated after an evidentiary hearing. She was also lead trial counsel for the NFL in a national antitrust lawsuit brought by putative class members challenging the league’s Sunday Ticket broadcast package.

Kessler, a partner at the international law firm of Winston & Strawn, has handled numerous sports law cases for clients challenging their sports governing bodies including the National Football League Players Association, the National Basketball Players Association, the Arena Football League Players Association, the National Hockey League Players’ Association, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the NFL Coaches Association.

He was also part of a team that successfully defended Matsushita Electric and JVC against claims of a worldwide conspiracy in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Zenith v. Matsushita.