Siding with student-athletes, the US Supreme Court on Monday ruled against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the organisation’s bid to maintain limits on education-related compensation for them that critics have said help maintain the fiction of amateurism in college sports.
The court ruled 9-0 that the NCAA’s curbs on non-cash payments to college athletes related to education – including benefits such as computers, science equipment and musical instruments – are anticompetitive under a federal law called the Sherman Antitrust Act. The NCAA is the major governing body for US intercollegiate sports.
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The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals last year found the NCAA’s rules to be anticompetitive, upholding a 2019 injunction imposed by California-based US District Judge Claudia Wilken that allowed education-related compensation.
Wilken set new rules that the NCAA said were arbitrary and could pave the way to future challenges to other policies set by the organization.
Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch said it was not the role of judges to weigh in on what reforms are needed in college sports, but Wilken’s injunction “may encourage scholastic achievement and allow student-athletes a measure of compensation more consistent with the value they bring to their schools”.
Gorsuch conceded that “some will see this as a poor substitute for fuller relief.”
College athletes who filed lawsuits in 2014 and 2015 – consolidated into a single case in California federal court – argued that the NCAA’s compensation limits represent a form of unlawful restraint of trade at a time when the leading intercollegiate conferences are amassing billions of dollars in revenue.
The case involves students who are players at the highest level of college sports: NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball and those in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Football and basketball represent the major revenue-generating sports at the college level.
Although the case does not involve direct payments to athletes, the wider issue of player compensation has increasingly become a point of contention. College sports bring in billions of dollars in revenue.
Under current NCAA rules, students cannot be paid, and the scholarship money colleges can offer is capped at the cost of attending the school. The NCAA had defended its rules as necessary to preserve the amateur nature of college sports.
But the former athletes who brought the case, including former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, argued that the NCAA’s rules on education-related compensation were unfair and violate federal antitrust law designed to promote competition.
Joining the NCAA in defending the rules were major college sports conferences including all of the big-money so-called Power Five conferences: the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference and Pac-12 Conference.