The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision this week in a narrow antitrust case focused on student-athlete compensation should be a major warning to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
The justices ruled that the behemoth governing body of college sports could not block small payments to its athletes, focusing in particular on education-related benefits like graduate scholarships and school supplies. But the unanimous decision and forceful words from Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggest the NCAA’s stubborn adherence to an often mythical ideal of amateurism is in jeopardy.
"The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels," wrote Kavanaugh in a concurring opinion. "But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America."
That business model relies on a sometimes-noble philosophy that scholar-athletes shouldn’t be professionals, and that the nonprofessional aspect of NCAA competition is why fans tune in. On this, Kavanaugh was rightly skewering: "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."
Hypocrisy abounds in the NCAA’s system. Scholarship students participating in moneymaking sports like football and basketball help the NCAA and its schools rake in big profits — the NCAA’s broadcast contract for March Madness is worth $1.1 billion annually, the court noted. Top conference commissioners make millions and some coaches earn more than their states’ governors — while athletes hope for future checks, often an elusive quest.
College sports have morphed over time, rarely embodying a pure amateur ideal. An 1852 boat race featuring Harvard and Yale — perhaps the country’s first intercollegiate competition — was sponsored by a railroad executive to push travel to Lake Winnipesaukee. Alcohol for the competitors was included.
The Supreme Court decision simply heralds the next evolution for college sports.
The NCAA should prepare for change on the athlete compensation front, whether at the court’s hand in future cases or under the duress of public opinion. But states can also begin to create a framework for student-athlete compensation, including for the use of a student’s name, image or likeness. Legislation on that subject has been floated in Albany and should be hammered out, as is occurring in other states. New York is not as much of a college sports powerhouse as some other states but its top athletes — whether from Syracuse, St. John’s or Stony Brook — deserve a chance to be paid.
These are complex issues, and rules need to work for the tiny minority of athletes who go pro as well as the many in lower divisions. But a chance at education and glory on the playing fields are both cherished American traditions. Under-compensating exceptional athletes need not continue to be the same.
Editorials are written by members of the editorial board, a group of opinion journalists whose views on the issues of the day reflect the longstanding values of Newsday.