As another exciting March Madness tournament was wrapping up this year, the Supreme Court was just beginning to take a hard look at NCAA rules about student athletes. The case being brought before them focused on how (and how much) these players could be paid by the institutions they play for. The ramifications could have major ripple effects throughout college athletics.
Payment, but not profit
According to the current NCAA bylaws, there are strict regulations on how athletes can be compensated by colleges and universities. They’re not exactly being paid, though.
Instead, they’re having certain costs covered, like tuition, room and board, and course materials. There are grants and scholarships available as well, but the bottom line is that student athletes aren’t actually profiting from their athletic contribution; it’s more like they’re being reimbursed.
So, what’s the issue?
College players are amateurs, right?
By that definition, they wouldn’t be paid for playing at their school. However, as college sports are increasingly functioning as the primary money-maker at many Division I schools, there’s a growing concern that players are being exploited in order for colleges and universities to profit off their hard work.
Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, weighed in on the matter in the Washington Post last December.
“This is an issue that has been festering for a number of years now,” said Feldman. “The Supreme Court has not ruled on amateurism and the application of antitrust law in relation to the NCAA in over 35 years. There has been a fair amount of confusion in the courts with litigants over the scope and deference the NCAA is entitled to over antitrust law.”
What could change for college athletes?
In March, the Supreme Court began its landmark hearing on the NCAA’s business model in a case called NCAA v. Alston (named for Shawne Alston, a former running back for West Virginia University, who brought the case to the courts along with other athletes). The question they’re ultimately considering is whether the limits that the NCAA places on player compensation are illegal.
If the Supreme Court rules that the NCAA’s restrictions are in violation of antitrust laws, new avenues for player compensation could become available. For example, student athletes might be able to receive funding for post-grad internships, study abroad travel, or even cash payments for academic achievements.
The NCAA argues that these types of “payments” would essentially be like players receiving a salary, and that the loss of the true amateur nature of college sports would be detrimental to its appeal to consumers. But to be clear, this isn’t about giving players direct payments. Instead, it’s about potentially lifting restrictions on the types of education-related compensation they can receive.
The attorney for the student athletes, Jeffrey Kessler, argued that amateurism doesn’t need to be defined by payment, but rather that the sports are played by students. He also pointed out that when certain types of reimbursement were previously ruled to be acceptable (like full athletic scholarships), it didn’t ruin the appeal of or demand for college sports.
The fight to allow players to profit from their participation in college athletics is extending beyond the Supreme Court, too. There are several bills being considered by Congress which would allow these athletes to make money off their own name, image, and likeness. Some states are also enacting or considering legislative bills that would allow certain types endorsements for college players, the first of which goes into effect in Florida this July.
Where the money goes
One of the complicating factors for the NCAA’s defense is the fact that college sports are such a powerhouse when it comes to profits. Many people in support of the athletes in the case believe that colleges should divert some of the exorbitant funds put into expensive athletic facilities and coaching salaries to benefit the students who play.
While college coaches can secure multi-million dollar contracts and tournaments like March Madness bring in billions of dollars in revenue, students are left to fend for themselves despite the incredibly high demands of university athletics programs. In addition, some play in the hopes of eventually profiting through pro sports, but one injury could potentially derail that entire plan, leaving athletes with nothing to show for the time they put in during college.
As a brief filed by the lawyers of the athletes involved in the case stated, “The NCAA and its member conferences and schools receive billions of dollars every year through the hard work, sweat, and sometimes broken bodies of student-athletes. Yet the schools have agreed among themselves to limit what student-athletes may receive for their work in generating these extraordinary revenues.”
How the court is leaning
Interestingly, both conservative- and liberal-leaning judges questioned the NCAA’s argument pretty thoroughly during the initial hearing.
The most recent addition to the Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, inquired about the NCAA’s reach when it comes to defining how and whether athletes can be paid.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh expressed concern about student athletes being exploited, saying that the NCAA was “conspiring with competitors to pay no salaries to the workers who are making the schools billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing.”
Justice Clarence Thomas noted that coaching salaries have “ballooned” while players continue to deal with strict compensation limits. Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that college athletes can already receive other benefits like tuition and room and board, which means they’re already being paid in some form.
The NCAA’s defense also promoted the organization’s long history of amateur sports, but the argument didn’t appear to win over Justice Elena Kagan, who said, “I guess it doesn’t move me all that much that there is a history to this if what is going on now is that competitors—as to labor—are combining to fix prices.”
Justices Stephen Breyer and John Roberts expressed some concern about weighing in on how the NCAA is run. Roberts in particular was concerned about whether a ruling in support of the athletes could open the floodgates for other types of payment.
A decision in the case is expected by June or July of this year.