In a much-anticipated decision, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the NCAA proclaiming that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by limiting education related benefits to student-athletes. While NCAA v. Alston was a relatively narrow decision, it could open the door for major changes to college athletics in the near future.
To be clear, this decision did not rule on issues relating to paying athletes for performance or allowing them to earn money from endorsements. The Supreme Court’s decision only dealt with whether colleges could provide educational perks without limitations to student-athletes, like free laptops, tutoring, equipment/instruments, disability insurance, scholarships, or paid internships.
In this case, former college football players brought suit against the NCAA saying the governing body of college sports violated Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act by engaging in restraints of trade or commerce. Interestingly, the NCAA did not dispute the key facts regarding restraints and instead argued that these restraints were necessary to preserve amateurism.
The NCAA tried to argue that the institution was largely exempt from antitrust laws because of its mission to ensure that there was a clear distinction between college and professional sports. However, in the decision, the Supreme Court noted that NCAA rules were not reasonably necessary to distinguish between college and professional sports. Moreover, Justice Neil Gorsuch stated that this argument was particularly weak given the fact that “this suit involves admitted horizontal price fixing in a market where the defendants exercise monopoly control.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh further emphasized that the NCAA’s business model would be “flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.” For example, Kavanaugh presented several comparisons, saying restaurants could never legally be allowed to agree to cut wages of cooks because consumers prefer to eat food from low-paid chefs or that lawyers would never be allowed to put a cap on lawyer salaries under the belief that lawyers should not have big salaries because they are working for the love of the law. In his concurring opinion, Kavanaugh frankly stated “price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor. And price-fixing labor is ordinarily a textbook antitrust problem because it extinguishes the free market in which individuals can otherwise obtain fair compensation for their work.”
With this decision, schools and conferences can theoretically offer different educational benefits than their competitors in the near future. Student-athletes may soon have to consider each university’s educational perks when deciding where to commit. This adds yet another layer of competition between schools.
While these educational perks may seem minuscule at first glance, the perks are a major victory for athlete rights. Eliminating limitations on free laptops, additional tutoring, and paid internships could go a long way in helping those who are not going to turn pro and are truly focused on education. Meanwhile, if adopted by schools, removing limits on disability insurance could be a monumental shift that provides additional protection for those who may suffer a career ending injury in college.
Finally, and potentially most importantly, the Supreme Court definitively noted that the prior influential NCAA Supreme Court case, Board of Regents, “did not analyze the lawfulness of the NCAA’s restrictions on student-athlete compensation,” as the NCAA had previously argued. As a result, this language emphasizes that there has been no binding or dispositive language from the courts preventing students from receiving compensation. While today’s ruling did not address whether the NCAA regulations preventing student-athletes from receiving compensation are legal, it did state that the Supreme Court had yet to rule on the issue of amateurism, thereby shooting down the NCAA’s use of Board of Regents as an explicit defense of their amateur model.
This ruling is yet another indicator that transformative change to the NCAA’s amateurism model is on the horizon. The Supreme Court’s definitive rebuke of the NCAA’s decades-old rhetoric has certainly exposed serious cracks in the NCAA’s framework. Similarly, public sentiment has shifted in recent years in favor of allowing student-athletes to receive endorsement compensation for their name, image, and likeness. In fact, five states have legislation allowing athletes to make money off of their name, image, and likeness as soon as July 1. Thus, it’s clear that today’s decision was only the tip of the iceberg and that more challenges to the NCAA are imminent.
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Featured photo: Susan Walsh/AP