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Supreme Court Hears NCAA Athlete Pay Case

NCAA v Alston could be the first step toward NCAA athletes organizing a union

Brian Young's picture
Mar 31, 2021

As March Madness comes down to the Final Four, the Supreme Court heard an important case concerning challenging amateurism, the ability of college athletes in football and basketball to get paid, and whether these rules violate antitrust laws.

The case, named NCAA v. Alston, was first filed as a class-action lawsuit in 2014 by Division I football and basketball players. The lawsuit challenged the NCAA’s infamously tough rules around eligibility and compensation for players. The players won an early, partial victory when a federal district court in California ruled that the NCAA could not limit benefits related to education but allowed the NCAA to continue to restrict non-education-related benefits.

Under NCAA rules, college athletes are not eligible to receive financial compensation beyond scholarships. This means that a player cannot be paid to play for the school, including being paid by outside people affiliated with the school like boosters, but it also means that players can’t use their likeness to make money, such as endorsing products. At the same time, the NCAA makes roughly $1.1 billion in revenue each year, largely from television rights and coaches at major universities routinely sign multimillion contracts.

In the hearing on Wednesday, the justices questioned whether amateurism is an essential part of the NCAA’s business model. In the case, the NCAA argued that amateurism was the appeal of watching college sports and that if the players were paid, the American consumer would lose interest in their sport. Yet, Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that players are already receiving some form of compensation through scholarships, stipends, and other benefits that the university might provide and that hasn’t caused a downturn in TV ratings or ticket sales.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, noting that college sports generate billions of dollars in revenue, said that “the antitrust laws should not be a cover for the exploitation of the student-athletes.”

Justice Clarence Thomas also noted that everyone else involved in college sports is paid enormous sums of money, except the players. “It just strikes me as odd that coaches’ salaries have ballooned,” he said.

Justice Elena Kagan questioned the function of amateurism, which she noted was created over a century ago, and wondered whether the NCAA was using that to hold an undisputed power over the market and fix the price of labor. "You can only ride on the history for so long. A great deal has changed since 100 years ago in the way student-athletes are treated," Kagan said. "A great deal has changed [since 1985 when the last challenge to NCAA rules was heard by the Supreme Court], let alone 100 years ago. I guess it doesn't move me all that much that there is a history to this."

However, Kagan and some of the other Judges worried that a decision that allowed players to be paid might open up a flood of new lawsuits and litigation in the future that chip away at the NCAA’s rules, thus turning it into a professional sports league.

A decision in the case is expected in June. A favorable outcome for Alston could also play a pivotal role in reclassifying student-athletes as employees of the school and allowing them to form a union.

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