Why Supreme Court’s ruling may be game-changer for NCAA student-athletes
In a 9-0 ruling against the NCAA, the high court found the organization was in violation of antitrust laws that had been in place for decades
The NCAA sought redress from the U.S. Supreme Court in one more bid to keep its foot on the throat of college athletics. Big mistake. On Monday, the Court came back with a 9-0 ruling against the organization, accompanied by blistering court opinions. It was a bigger rout than the last Super Bowl. The NCAA bullies didn’t just lose this case — the ruling potentially could have more far-reaching effects.
The NCAA appealed the ruling of lower courts that would have lifted restrictions on providing college athletes with education-related benefits, such as internships and laptops, which the NCAA considered a violation of their crusty old notion of “amateurism.” The ruling did not seek to overturn much beyond those costs, and the NCAA could have walked away with much of its hold on financial compensation still in place, but the NCAA got greedy and went for broke by taking it to the high court.
Not only did the overseer of college athletics lose that argument, but Monday’s ruling laid the groundwork for the NCAA to lose much more of its powers. The NCAA could see its entire business model gutted. That will cost it a lot more than laptops.
As one lawyer put it on “The Rich Eisen Show,” at least the NCAA had come away from the lower courts with the equivalent of a field goal by retaining some of its powers. Instead, the NCAA chose to take points off the board by appealing to the Supreme Court and came away with nothing; meanwhile, the other team scored a touchdown.
“The NCAA has long restricted the compensation and benefits that student-athletes may receive,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion. “And with surprising success, the NCAA has long shielded its compensation rules from ordinary antitrust scrutiny. Today, however, the Court holds that the NCAA has violated the antitrust laws. The Court’s decision marks an important and overdue course correction, and I join the Court’s excellent opinion in full.”
Kavanaugh continued in that vein for several paragraphs. Translation: The NCAA is not a separate country able to create its own laws, and athletes should be able to participate in the free and open marketplace like other Americans. If that doesn’t happen immediately, the court’s ruling and opinions seem to open the door to more changes in the future.
The wonder of it all is that the NCAA business model has lasted this long, beating challenge after challenge for decades.
The NCAA deserves whatever harsh treatment comes its way; the organization brought this on itself with its greed and tyranny. The NCAA ruled that it even owned an athlete’s image (his/her photo or likeness) in perpetuity — only the NCAA could make money off it, not the athlete. Ed O’Bannon had to go to court over it. With a straight face, while raking in billions of dollars for itself as well as schools, sponsors, radio and TV outlets, and coaches, the NCAA insisted for decades that a coach couldn’t buy so much as a pizza for a kid.
Remember Nathan Harris, who lost a year of eligibility because he played in three church basketball games. Remember Steve Rhodes, the former Marine who was ruled ineligible for two years and forced to take a mandatory redshirt year because he had played in a recreational football league on a military base. Remember BYU runner Jared Ward, who was denied a year of eligibility because he once ran in a recreational road race against joggers and people wearing bird costumes. And let’s not forget the unidentified golfer at a West Coast Conference school who was hit with an NCAA violation for washing her car on campus — because the water and hose weren’t available to regular students. She was required to pay the university $20.
The NCAA reversed field on those first three cases when the media brought them to light; suddenly, their ethics weren’t so important when the public heard about it.
On one hand, NCAA officials preach the beauty of amateurism; on the other hand they are negotiating a TV deal for the NCAA basketball tournament that reportedly will reap $1 billion annually.
Kavanaugh delivered a scathing attack on the NCAA, which surely will embolden others to take on more of the NCAA’s amateurism rules that go beyond what Monday’s ruling provided.
“ … the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules also raise serious questions under antitrust laws,” Kavanaugh wrote, which should have the NCAA tycoons biting their nails. The worst might be yet to come.
“The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student-athletes in innocuous labels,” Kavanaugh continued. “But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America. 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.
“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.”
He attacked what he called the NCAA’s “price-fixing labor” practices, calling it a “textbook antitrust problem.”
“The bottom line is that the NCAA and its member colleges are suppressing the pay of student-athletes who collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year. Those enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student-athletes. College presidents, athletic directors, coaches, conference commissioners and NCAA executives take in six- and seven-figure salaries. Colleges build lavish new facilities. But the student-athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing.”
Turning his attack on the NCAA’s embrace of “amateurism,” Kavanaugh wrote, “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. 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. 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.”
Decades ago, no one was making money in collegiate sports, but with the arrival of TV deals came billions of dollars and universities turned into professional sports businesses. Everything about their sports model changed — except the part in which athletes play for nothing but an education. Monday’s ruling could change all that.
Doug Robinson is a columnist for the Deseret News.