The NCAA suffered a major blow to its amateurism model on Monday, when the United States Supreme Court issued their ruling in favor of college athletes in the landmark college athletics case – NCAA v. Alston. For the first time since 1984, the Supreme Court heard a case involving college athletics. A lot has changed in college sports since then. The industry is riddled with six and seven figure coaches’ salaries, billion-dollar television revenue deals, and lavish facilities. Sports administration officials receive all of this, while college athletes are limited to a cost-of-attendance scholarship. The Supreme Court addressed these inequities in their unanimous opinion affirming the lower courts’ decision that the NCAA can no longer restrict education-related benefits for college athletes. This is a major win for college athletes’ rights that has been years in the making.
Alston Case Summary
In 2018, a California District Court judge held the Alston v. NCAA trial. During the trial, former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston alleged that the NCAA’s amateurism rules violated federal antitrust law. At trial, The NCAA acknowledged that their amateurism rules do in fact violate federal antitrust law. However, the NCAA contended that their rules were necessary to preserve amateurism. The plaintiffs then demonstrated that the NCAA could accomplish its goal of preserving amateurism in a less restrictive manner. Specifically, the plaintiffs showed that the NCAA could preserve amateurism by no longer restricting education-related benefits while still being allowed to restrict non education-related benefits. Education-related benefits include benefits such as musical instruments, computers, and scholarships for graduate or vocational school.
The District Court ultimately ruled that the NCAA could no longer restrict education-related benefits but could still restrict non education-related benefits. Subsequently, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision. The United States Supreme Court has affirmed the lower courts’ ruling that the NCAA can no longer restrict education-related benefits.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In the opinion, the United States Supreme Court Justices did two very notable things:
1. The Justices Made it Clear that the NCAA’s Rules are Subject to Antitrust Law.
The Justices made it clear that the NCAA’s amateurism rules are unequivocally subject to antitrust law. The NCAA has argued tirelessly that their amateurism rules should not be subject to review under federal antitrust laws due to a small passage from the 1984 Board of Regents case. In 1984, the Supreme Court heard another federal antitrust law case involving college athletics. The issue before the Court involved the NCAA’s rules regarding television contracts and whether those rules violated federal antitrust law. Although the case did not address college athlete compensation, the court included one passage that the NCAA has held onto in its efforts to preserve amateurism. That passage states:
“The NCAA plays a critical role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports. There can be no question but that it needs ample latitude to play that role, or that the preservation of the student-athlete in higher education adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics and is entirely consistent with the goals of the Sherman Act.”
Even though this line really had nothing to do with the issue in the case, the NCAA has attempted to treat this passage as it if it were settled law that the NCAA’s rules should not be subject to antitrust law. On Monday, the Supreme Court gutted the NCAA’s reliance on that passage and made it clear that the passage does not absolve the NCAA of all challenges to its amateurism rules. Specifically, the Justices stated:
“Board of Regents may suggest that courts should take care when assessing the NCAA’s restraints on student-athlete compensation, sensitive, to their pro competitive possibilities. But these remarks do not suggest that courts must reflexively reject all challenges to the NCAA’s compensation restrictions.”
This is a major blow to the NCAA and its attempt to preserve amateurism. This line was arguably their Achilles heel in their pro amateurism argument. The United States Supreme Court has definitively stated that the passage in Board of Regents is not law. The Court affirmed that it is not a basis for the the NCAA to skirt antitrust law scrutiny. What will the NCAA turn to now to defend its precious amateurism?
2. The Justices Made it Clear that This Case Only Addresses Education-Related Benefits
In the opinion, the Justices made it clear that the case is very narrow as it only applies to education-related benefits. The opinion did not address other forms of potential compensation for college athletes such as name, image, and likeness rights nor benefits that are unrelated to education. The Justices also reiterated that the NCAA has considerable flexibility in determining what exactly an education-related benefit is. The district court invited the NCAA to specify what education-related benefits are and as such the Justices noted that the NCAA could institute a “no Lamborghini” rule if it chooses to.
While the main opinion did not address broader college athlete compensation issues, Justice Kavanaugh did in his concurring opinion. Justice Kavanaugh wrote a scathing concurring opinion where he painted the picture of college athletics for what it is. In his concurring opinion, Justice Kavanaugh noted the fact that much of the NCAA’s reasoning used to defend amateurism is circular and weak. He stated that the NCAA’s business model would be illegal in almost any other industry in America.
Furthermore, Justice Kavanaugh pointed out that college athletes generate billions of dollars in revenues each year. He also addressed the fact that many of those athletes are African American and from low-income backgrounds. He further stated that the NCAA’s tradition of hosting collegiate tournaments cannot “justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated.” Lastly, he plainly stated that “the NCAA is not above the law.”
What does This Ruling Mean for the Future of College Athletics?
While this a significant win for college athletes’ rights, the fight is far from over. The Justices made clear in their opinion that the ruling in this case is very narrow. It only applies to the NCAA’s ability to restrict education-related benefits. Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion highlighted many of the other issues that still need to be addressed regarding college athletics. His concurring opinion will be very beneficial to future challenges to the NCAA’s rules. It helps portray the issue as the civil rights issue that it is. The ruling will also help future challenges to the NCAA’s remaining amateurism rules as it completely gutted one of the NCAA’s core arguments. Furthermore, the ruling made clear that the Court will not be giving the NCAA an antitrust law exemption. The Court instructed the NCAA to look to Congress for such an exemption.
Many may be wondering if the impending name, image, and likeness laws are still necessary. The answer is that they most certainly are. This case only addressed education-related benefits. As such, it does not address college athletes’ ability to make money from their athletic prowess. The impending name, image and likeness laws is one way to give college athletes the ability to do so. On Monday, the college athletes’ rights movement took one giant step forward, but there is still much work to be done.
About the Author
Kassandra Ramsey is an intellectual property, sports and entertainment attorney is the Washington, D.C. metro area. Follow her on Twitter @esquire_coach and Instagram @the_esquirecoach. Check you her website www.kassandraramseylegal.com.