NCAA sports will forever change as a result of the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion ruling for athletes on June 21. Students had sued to challenge the college sports governing body’s ban on compensation. A lower court ruled the law allows such a ban but held that NCAA rules limiting education-related benefits schools offer to student-athletes violated federal law, namely, the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Supreme Court agreed and ruled that education benefits, including some paid benefits, may not be banned.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion, and he started with a fun history lesson on college sports and compensation. The Harvard-Yale Boat Race of 1852, apparently the first intercollegiate competition, was sponsored by a railroad executive and “offered the competitors an all-expenses-paid vacation with lavish prizes — along with unlimited alcohol.” Those were the days. Until this decision in NCAA v. Alston, modern rules allowed schools the ability to provide little more than tuition, room, and board.
Shabazz Napier, who would play in the NBA, shamed the entire NCAA system when he told reporters he and his champion colleagues often went to bed hungry. His comments after the 2014 March Madness NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship made headlines and prompted some change. The NCAA responded quickly to the outcry following Napier’s comments by allowing schools to offer students unlimited access to food and drink so long as they’re participating in a varsity college sport. No changes were implemented beyond the grocery aisle before now, however.
It remains to be seen exactly which expenses may be provided by schools as educational benefits that are now allowed. We know that rules limiting scholarships for graduate or vocational school, payments for academic tutoring, or paid post-eligibility internships are not allowed. The district court’s ruling quoted by the Supreme Court also says the “NCAA could develop its own definition of benefits that relate to education and seek modification of the court’s injunction to reflect that definition.” Expect more litigation as schools and the NCAA go back and forth on where the line is.
Closing out the Court’s opinion, Gorsuch quoted from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled for the students:
“‘The national debate about amateurism in college sports is important. But our task as appellate judges is not to resolve it. Nor could we. Our task is simply to review the district court judgment through the appropriate lens of antitrust law.’”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh was not content to leave the NCAA with the defeat he and his colleagues unanimously handed it. Or more like landed one on its chin. He wrote a concurrence that amounted to five pages of a warning shot to the NCAA about the full Monty: payments to athletes. He said, “It is highly questionable whether the NCAA and its member colleges can justify not paying student-athletes a fair share of the revenues on the circular theory that the defining characteristic of college sports is that the colleges do not pay student-athletes.” It’s never good when a Supreme Court justice tells you he doesn’t like your chances in future litigation likely to occur. Soon enough, we’re likely to see if Kavanaugh’s colleagues agree with him.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.