The Supreme Court ruled Monday that limits on education-related benefits that colleges can offer student-athletes who play Division I basketball and football can't be enforced, unanimously siding with former athletes against the NCAA in a ruling that could have a major impact on the future of college athletics.
The high court upheld a lower court's ruling which found a portion of the NCAA's amateurism rules to be unlawful. The narrow ruling does not completely invalidate the NCAA's amateurism rules, but could open the door for further rulings related to student-athlete compensation.
"To be sure, the NCAA and its member colleges maintain important traditions that have become part of the fabric of America," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion, celebrating the great tradition of college athletics in the United States. "Game days in Tuscaloosa and South Bend; the packed gyms in Storrs and Durham; the women’s and men’s lacrosse championships on Memorial Day weekend; track and field meets in Eugene; the spring softball and baseball World Series in Oklahoma City and Omaha; the list goes on."
"But those traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student athletes who are not fairly compensated, Kavanaugh continued. "Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing to not pay their workers a fair market rate on their theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate."
"The NCAA is not above the law," he added.
The case could open the door for future rulings on athlete compensation. State laws are going into effect nationwide, some as soon as July 1, which will allow student-athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness.
Ninteteen states have passed laws allowing name, image and likeness (NIL) payments. Five of those laws are set to take effect July 1, allowing, for the first time, college players to be paid, although not directly by their universities.
Earlier this month, NCAA President Mark Emmert and Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few urged Congress to pass a federal law that would set a uniformed standard for student athletes being paid for use of their name, image or likeness. They would instead cash in through endorsements, personal appearances or other business opportunities made possible by their status as a student athlete.
NCAA officials and coaches are concerned, however, that a hodgepodge of varying laws from state to state will create an unlevel playing field, with schools in states without NIL laws recruiting against programs where star players can monetize their talent.
“We do need some parameters to preserve the collegiate model and protect the recruiting environment,” Few testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. “Without these parameters, the unintended consequences could be disastrous.”
Rod Gilmore, an ESPN college football analyst and lawyer, argued that Congress should only pass an NIL law if its aim is to protect the athletes, as opposed to the universities. He predicted that the free market would create an “equilibrium” for name, image and likeness payments — in other words, states without laws would eventually feel pressured into adopting them, too.
“The NCAA believes — and I have had coaches and administrators telling me this — that third parties will pay less to athletic departments if those third parties are allowed to pay players directly,” Gilmore claimed. “In other words, the athletic departments want to protect their revenue stream, which is why the NCAA wants a national name, image and likeness law.
“Players have been treated like second-class citizens without the right to enjoy the freedoms and the rights that the NCAA, every other student and every other American enjoys — the right to fully participate in a free market,” he added.
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 argued that the NCAA’s rules on education-related compensation were unfair and violate federal antitrust law designed to promote competition.
The case doesn’t decide whether students can be paid salaries. Instead, the ruling will help determine whether schools decide to offer athletes tens of thousands of dollars in education-related benefits for things such as computers, graduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad and internships.
College athletics generated $18.9 billion in revenue in 2019, according to the NCAA.
This is a developing story. Check back later for further updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.