Take To The Court: Justices Will Hear Case On Student Athlete Compensation

As March Madness plays out on TV, the U.S. Supreme Court takes a rare excursion into sports law Wednesday in a case testing whether the NCAA’s limits on compensation for student athletes violate the nation’s antitrust laws.

The outcome could have enormous consequences for college athletics.

The NCAA maintains that notwithstanding antitrust law, the amateur sports governing body may impose certain limits on athlete compensation in order to preserve relative parity of play, and to maintain what the NCAA contends is the essence of college sports’ popularity — namely, amateurism.

The players, on the other hand, say the NCAA is operating a system that is a classic restraint of competition in business, and there is little doubt that big-time college sports is a business.

“There’s no question that the commercialization of big-time college basketball and football have morphed into a very lucrative business and are taking advantage of students to generate that income,” says Gary Roberts, who has practiced and taught sports law and antitrust law for more than four decades.

Indeed, in 2016 the NCAA negotiated TV rights of $8.8 billion over eight years for the March Madness basketball competition.

As TV rights have skyrocketed, so too have multimillion-dollar salaries paid to coaches, along with even pricier palatial training facilities and stadiums.

But the NCAA continues to dramatically limit compensation for players.


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The NCAA argues the compensation is a free education and education-related expenses. But critics counter that at top football and basketball schools, players routinely miss classes for practice, travel and games, and graduation rates are 20% to 30% lower than for non-athletes.

The NCAA in the last five years has broadened the benefits that student athletes can receive, but the rules are still incomprehensible to many.

Siding with the student athletes are the professional players associations for the NFL, the NBA and the WNBA, and the National Women’s Soccer League.

They note, for instance, that NCAA rules permit tennis players to accept up to $10,000 per year in prize money prior to college enrollment, but football, basketball and soccer players may not receive such payments.

And while big-time college teams are allowed to recruit with plush facilities that include everything from movie theaters to bowling alleys and recording studios, the NCAA voided the University of Massachusetts’ wins for its women’s tennis team because the school inadvertently reimbursed two players $252 for a telephone jack in their apartment.

Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane University’s Sports Law Program, says the battle between the players and the colleges they play for is more than just an economic fight; it’s a civil rights fight.

“If you look at the athletes who are being harmed by this most, they are men’s and women’s basketball players and football players, and they are predominantly Black,” says Feldman, who is also Tulane’s associate provost for NCAA compliance.

Conversely, he observes the athletes who play sports that are subsidized — often using basketball and football income — are predominantly white students who play tennis, golf and other sports that do not make big bucks — if any bucks at all for the schools.

Wednesday’s case is an appeal brought by the NCAA after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California expanded the range of education-related benefits that student athletes could receive — among them laptops, musical instruments, paid internships and tuition for graduate school. The appeals court decision, however, did not get rid of limits on athlete compensation for items unrelated to education.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, contending that student athletics, even when profitable, are unique; they are popular because the players are students, not professional athletes. College sports are largely exempt from the antitrust laws, the NCAA argues, because the rules limiting compensation “widen choices for consumers by distinguishing college sports from professional sports.”

“This is history repeating itself,” says Tulane’s Feldman. “Every professional sports league argued that some change that provided athletes with more rights would destroy the sport, whether it was free agency, you name it.”

The NCAA, he observes, is not the only sports entity to rest its case on amateurism. In 1913, the International Olympic Committee stripped track star Jim Thorpe of his two Olympic gold medals, declaring him a “professional” after learning that, years earlier, he’d played minor league baseball.

Today all those amateur rules in the Olympics are gone. Pro basketball players and hockey players thrill Olympic audiences, and the U.S. and other countries actually pay athletes tens of thousands of dollars for winning medals. Swimmer Katie Ledecky earned $355,000 for her Olympic victories and was allowed to participate for Stanford University as a “amateur” under NCAA rules, according to USA Today.

Should the NCAA lose at the Supreme Court, it can seek help from Congress, but prospects for a blanket exemption from antitrust laws would seem unlikely.

Meanwhile, lots of states are enacting laws that would allow college athletes to make money using their own names and images through endorsement deals and social media platforms — something that is currently banned by the NCAA. The first of these laws, in Florida, goes into effect this July.

This all puts the NCAA in a tough spot.

“They’re juggling fiery knives,” Feldman says. “They’re trying to thread a needle between the Supreme Court, Congress, the states, pressure from the public and athletes who are potentially threatening to sit out games unless they get better treatment.”

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