Supreme Court NCAA ruling could be amateur model death blow

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday that the NCAA violated antitrust law by limiting education-related compensation for its student-athletes. Now, it may not be long before college players really cash in on the multibillion dollar industry.

The upholding of lower-court rulings in favor of former college athletes is narrow in scope, allowing schools to pay for graduate scholarships, post-eligibility internships, study-abroad programs, academic tutors, computers, textbooks and musical instruments — and other education-based perks — in addition to standard undergraduate athletic scholarships. The ruling also allows for limited cash rewards tied to good grades and/or graduation.

“Put simply, this suit involves admitted horizontal price fixing in a market where the defendants exercise monopoly control,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court’s opinion.

More importantly, the 9-0 ruling could also serve a devastating blow to the traditional amateur model, which the NCAA still argues is “the defining feature of college sports” and essential to its popularity and profitability.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh disagreed in his concurring opinion, perhaps providing the framework for future hearings, in which student-athletes challenge the NCAA’s prohibition of its players being paid.

“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” Kavanaugh wrote. “All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that ‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks. Law firms cannot conspire to cabin lawyers’ salaries in the name of providing legal services out of a ‘love of the law.’ Hospitals cannot agree to cap nurses’ income in order to create a ‘purer’ form of helping the sick. News organizations cannot join forces to curtail pay to reporters to preserve a ‘tradition’ of public-minded journalism. Movie studios cannot collude to slash benefits to camera crews to kindle a ‘spirit of amateurism’ in Hollywood. 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.

an athlete stands near a NCAA logo during a softball game in Beaumont, Texas.
NCAA athletes could cash in soon following the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision.
AP Photo

“Traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated. Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”

Student-athletes have already claimed significant victories in the past year, with 19 states declaring such individuals can profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL). Multiple states will enact those laws on July 1. Monday’s ruling did not involve the NIL issue, which is part of current congressional hearings.

Jeffrey Kessler, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs, declared the court’s ruling “historic,” perhaps signaling the inevitable end of NCAA amateurism.

“Hopefully, it will also swing the doors open to further change, so that we can finally see a fair and competitive compensation system in which these incredible players get to benefit from the economic fruits of their labors and pursue their educational objectives,” Kessler said in a statement. “Only then will the NCAA truthfully be able to say it is devoted to the welfare of the student athletes.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), saw it as one step closer to the end for NCAA’s model.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling highlights just how much the tide is turning against the NCAA and its unfair treatment of college athletes,” Murphy said. “The status quo on ‘amateurism’ is finally changing and the NCAA no longer has carte blanche to control athletes’ livelihoods and monopolize the market. This is the kind of justice, and basic rights, college athletes deserve.”

Leave a Comment