Supreme Court Says NCAA Is Subject to Antitrust Law in Unanimous Landmark Decision

The NCAA had its bluff called in a big way. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled the NCAA has no legal standing to withhold education-related aid from athletes. (Let’s lose the “student-athlete” thing because even the guy who coined the term admitted it was to keep from having to compensate athletes adequately.)

What does the ruling mean? For starters, getting a group larger than one to agree unanimously on anything in today’s politically charged climate is nearly a miracle in and of itself. On a practical level, the NCAA can’t withhold the same type of aid available for students who aren’t there on an athletic scholarship in the interest of the NCAA’s quaint definition of “amateurism.”

On a broader playing field, the Court’s decision could open the door to paying something at least approaching fair market value to athletes, at least somewhere down the line. But in true recent custom, the NCAA is declaring victory in defeat.

Supreme Court ruling was narrow in scope but could have much broader implications

The Supreme Court ruled the NCAA is subject to federal antitrust laws
A detail view of the center court logo is seen ahead of the NCAA Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling against the NCAA regarding educational benefits for athletes. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The NCAA appealed a federal court ruling that the NCAA is subject to federal antitrust law. By a 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court sided with U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who had correctly dismissed the NCAA’s argument that antitrust laws did not apply to them, per NBC News.

According to NPR, Justice Neil Gorsuch admitted the ruling won’t please everyone in the ongoing battle to get compensation for athletes.

“Some will see this as a poor substitute for fuller relief.”

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch

However, Justice Brett Kavanaugh took a more direct approach in his concurrent opinion.

“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America. 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.’ … 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.”

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh

The language in Kavanaugh’s opinion is strong. But beyond the vacuum of the courtroom, the ruling has some real-world implications.

What the ruling means in practical terms for the NCAA

The Supreme Court’s decision expressly referred to educational benefits. Some examples of those are musical instruments or scientific equipment. But the ruling also applied to postgraduate scholarships, academic awards, tutoring, and paid internships.

NCAA president Mark Emmert claimed that the ruling is a win for the organization because the NCAA retains the ability to define what is and is not an educational benefit.

However, one advocate for athletes’ compensation sees some potentially significant effects from the ruling.

Amy Perko of the independent Knight Commission on Athletic Education says having conferences such as the SEC, Big Ten, and others defining limits on educational compensation could create competition between those conferences. An athlete unhappy with the benefits available in one conference could choose to enroll at a school from a conference that offers more.

However, the broader issue of paying athletes remains the elephant in the room.

NCAA lobbying for Congressional intervention

The NCAA’s model, particularly as it applies to the upper divisions of football and men’s basketball, is increasingly unpopular. The NCAA still prohibits athletes from profiting off their name, image, and likeness (NIL), but five states have enacted laws to counter that, effective July 1. The NCAA’s response has been to heavily lobby Congress for national NIL standards it can help dictate.

The optics are not helping the NCAA here — not while coaches rake in more and more in salary and perks and schools build multimillion-dollar facilities heavy on bells, whistles, and glamour for their athletic programs. All the while, athletes are subject to NCAA sanctions for getting any financial assistance outside the parameters of their scholarships.

One of the straw-man arguments against compensation for athletes is the idea of dismantling programs if you are required to pay members of the golf, tennis, or fencing teams. Applying a single standard to entirely different situations is the NCAA’s thing, though.

The issue is the so-called revenue sports. Anyone bringing up lacrosse or bowling is not acting in good faith; instead, they are just fighting to keep the status quo. After all, some rich people need to become more prosperous from the money generated by those kids. Think of the millionaires, for goodness’ sake!

Winning one for the Gipper makes for a great legend. But winning one for the organization that makes money hand over fist while you sweat and bleed — literally — and won’t even toss you the scraps? That’s the part of the NCAA making its particular sausage it prefers kept behind closed doors.  

Information from WBUR was also used in this report.

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