The Supreme Court will hear arguments from the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Wednesday to determine whether the organization can limit educational benefits for college athletes.
The case takes place amid broader athlete compensation debate and in the middle of the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament, which hosts championship games for women and men on Sunday and Monday. Some athletes participating in the Games have tried to pressure the organization using the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty.
The NCAA has struggled for years to protect the “amateur” quality of its games, though since 2015 it has allowed incremental payments to some athletes, including scholarships for the full cost of participation. The NCAA is in the process of reforming its policy to allow athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness, although efforts were delayed earlier this year due to scrutiny by the Justice Department.
The case is the first related to the NCAA to make it to the state’s highest court since the 1984 NCAA v Board of Regents case of the University of Oklahoma in which judges put down the organization’s plan for television football matches to have.
Alston v NCAA, No. 20-512, the case being argued, arises from a challenge brought by Shawne Alston, a rebate for the West Virginia Mountaineers, and other student athletes. The athletes have argued that the NCAA’s restrictions on educational services – such as computers, scientific equipment, and musical instruments – are in violation of federal antitrust law.
As of 2015, Division I athletes have been able to receive grants under NCAA guidelines up to their facility’s cost of attendance as determined by the school’s grant office, as well as some additional payments, including cash grants and rewards.
At the heart of the student athlete case is the claim that the NCAA is acting hypocritically, collecting money, and underpaid athletes in the name of “amateurism”. In fact, the NCAA’s restrictions on education-related payments are “simply cost-cutting measures.”
“Coaches, assistant coaches and athletic directors receive millions in salaries, but schools have agreed to limit the performance of athletes for their work to generate this extraordinary income,” wrote Jeffrey Kessler, Alston’s attorney, in court records. “The agreements between these schools are a classic horizontal trade restriction – an agreement between competitors to limit how much they have to spend to compete for talent and work.”
Kessler wrote that the NCAA, its member conferences, and schools “earn billions of dollars each year from athletes’ hard work, sweat and sometimes broken bodies.”
A federal judge in California sided with the athletes, and the US 9th Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in May. In its decision, the 9th Circle said the NCAA was entitled to protect the amateurism of its games but defined it as “non-paying student-athletes unlimited payments unrelated to education”.
The 9th Circle acknowledged that in the Board of Regents’ 1984 case, the Supreme Court adopted a much stricter definition of amateurism as excluding all payments for athletic performance.
However, the appeals court said it was fair to drop the “Not One Penny Standard” because “there is substantial evidence that college sports have maintained particular popularity despite an increase in allowable forms of rewards and benefits over the COA.”
In its appeal against that decision, the NCAA, represented by former US Attorney General Seth Waxman, argued that the 9th Circuit had gotten out of hand and that maintaining the decision “would fundamentally change and blur the centuries-old institution of NCAA sport traditional line between college and professional athletes. “
Waxman acknowledged the public debate on athlete compensation but said the lower court “made itself an instrument from a point of view in the debate”.
“Antitrust disputes are completely unsuitable for resolving such debates,” wrote Waxman.
The NCAA also argues that lifting the cap on education-related benefits essentially opens the door to compensation that can be spun around education.
“By allowing such payments for the game of athletes, the decision will turn athletes into professionals and remove the anti-competitive distinction between college sports and professional sports,” he wrote. “Consumers will likely see NCAA athletics as just another form of minor league sport.”
The case is being discussed over the phone while the Supreme Court building remains closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The clashes will begin at 10 a.m. CET and will be broadcast live to the public. A decision in this case is expected in the summer.