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NCAA student-athletes can get same benefits permitted other students, Supreme Court rules

The NCAA logo is displayed on March 18,

The NCAA logo is displayed on March 18, 2015, at center court at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, one of the regional sites for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Credit: AP/Keith Srakocic

Student-athletes in college sports won a significant victory on Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the NCAA may not regulate or restrict benefits to them that are permitted other students.

The 9-0 decision upholds a lower-court ruling that said the NCAA’s rules restricting forms of educational compensation were in violation of antitrust law. While it is narrow in scope, it could influence determinations about whether athletes should be compensated for competing or whether they can be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).

The NCAA is currently under pressure to draft legislation related to NIL as several state legislatures have passed laws that will allow student-athletes those opportunities and go into effect July 1.

"Today's decision provides student-athletes with the right to not be told they can't receive benefits that have been impermissible," Hofstra University athletic director Rick Cole Jr. said. "I think the general public has long believed that student-athletes could, and maybe should, have the same rights that any other student has at [that] institution. The general public may not understand that the NCAA bylaws or rules or regulations of intercollegiate athletics are different than that of what is permissible to other folks on campus."

The NCAA’s restriction on these benefits has been part of its business model, which claims that the athletes’ amateurism is a selling point for its product. It’s system does not allow student-athletes to be paid outside of the cost of school given in a scholarship. Some have interpreted this to be schools colluding to fix labor costs.

Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court that the NCAA sought "immunity from the normal operation of the antitrust laws," which the court declined to grant.

He added "while the NCAA asks us to defer to its conception of amateurism, the district court found that the NCAA had not adopted any consistent definition. Instead, the court found, the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued a concurring opinion much more critical of the NCAA for long avoiding antitrust oversight of its business practices.

"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," Kavanaugh wrote. "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."

"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," the Kavanaugh opinion reads. "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."

The educational compensation addressed in the court’s decision are things available to other students and could include things such as laptops, internship salaries, tutoring and musical instruments. Under this decision, the NCAA or its member conferences may decide how to define educational compensation.

To this point, the NCAA has been under pressure to legislate for NIL in response to laws passed by the legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas that will allow student-athletes to earn money through endorsements or use of their social media platforms. It had hoped that Congress might pass a federal law regarding NIL but, according to many reports, that does not look promising.

Stony Brook University athletic director Shawn Heilbron serves on the NCAA’s legislative solutions group and that has been assembling recommendations for how NIL can be legislated

"It wasn't terribly surprising, given just the tenor around this issue," Heilbron said. "It doesn’t change the overall objective of allowing student-athletes these opportunities. . . . I'm optimistic that we can continue to work in that direction and hopefully find a federal solution. I know members of Congress [are] working toward that."

The NCAA’s Division I Council has meetings Tuesday and Wednesday where the court decision and the Kavanaugh opinion will surely shape some of the dialogue.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Supreme Court decided unanimously that the NCAA can’t enforce rules limiting education-related benefits — like computers and paid internships — that colleges offer to student-athletes, a ruling that could help push changes in how the student-athletes are compensated.
  • The ruling will help determine whether schools decide to offer athletes tens of thousands of dollars in education benefits for things including tutoring, study abroad programs and graduate scholarships.
  • The high court said that NCAA limits on the education-related benefits that colleges can offer athletes who play Division I basketball and football violate antitrust laws.
  • Under current NCAA rules, students cannot be paid, and the scholarship money colleges can offer is capped at the cost of attending the school.
  • As a result of the ruling, the NCAA itself can’t bar schools from sweetening their offers to Division I basketball and football players with additional education-related benefits. But individual athletic conferences can still set limits if they choose.

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