Supreme Court to Hear NCAA Appeal of Ruling Allowing Pay for College Athletes

December 16, 2020 Updated: December 16, 2020

The Supreme Court has decided to hear a potentially landmark antitrust case against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) based on the association’s rules that preclude paying student-athletes.

A ruling by the nation’s highest court against the NCAA could, in the organization’s view, undermine the prevailing business model for college sports that is based on not compensating athletes for their work. The NCAA is reportedly in the process of loosening its rules against athlete compensation by allowing their names, images, and likenesses to be licensed.

NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement that the organization is upbeat about the case.

“The NCAA and its members continue to believe that college campuses should be able to improve the student-athlete experience without facing never-ending litigation regarding these changes,” he said.

The NCAA makes a virtue out of not paying athletes, arguing in court documents that “a hallmark of intercollegiate athletics” is “a revered tradition of amateurism” that “adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics.”

The athletes counter that the tide is turning against the NCAA’s approach as “Congress and many state legislatures have either adopted or are now considering proposals to require the NCAA and its members to roll back their restrictions on athlete compensation, recognizing the profound inequity of a system that enables conference executives, athletic directors, coaches, schools, television networks, and a host of others to make billions of dollars on the backs of young, often underprivileged players.”

The case is NCAA v. Alston, which has been consolidated and will be heard together with an appeal brought by an NCAA conference, American Athletic Conference v. Alston, on a date yet to be determined. According to its custom, the court didn’t explain why it granted the petition. Former player Shawne Alston, one of a group of football and basketball athletes challenging the NCAA, was a running back in 2012 for the West Virginia University Mountaineers.

For years, college football has been among the most popular spectator sports in the United States. Top schools earn tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue. The work of college athletes is not paid, though schools are allowed to give players non-monetary compensation such as athletic scholarships that cover the cost of books, housing, and tuition.

The Dec. 16 decision to hear the case comes after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling preventing the NCAA from limiting education-related compensation and benefits for Division I student-athletes in basketball and Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Its conferences can still independently set their own rules.

On Aug. 11, Justice Elena Kagan refused without explanation to stay the decision while the NCAA pursued appeals.

The NCAA complained at the time that the 9th Circuit decision “effectively created a pay-for-play system for all student-athletes, allowing them to be paid both ‘unlimited’ amounts for participating in ‘internships,’” as well as $5,600 or more each year they continue to be eligible to play their sport.

The ruling, the NCAA said, was an example of “judicial micromanagement” that blurred “the line between [college] student-athletes and professionals” by eliminating limits on education-related money eligible football and basketball players can receive.

Counsel for the players, attorney Jeffrey Kessler, told The Epoch Times he’s optimistic about the case.

“While we didn’t ask for Supreme Court review, we welcome it. Now that this issue is before the Supreme Court, we hope that it will finally be settled that the antitrust laws apply fully to the multibillion-dollar businesses of Division I basketball and FBS football.”

In opposing the NCAA’s petition to the Supreme Court, the athletes argued in a brief that the rules restricting athlete pay were “cost-cutting measures, plain and simple, and not reasonably necessary to maintain consumer demand for college sports.” This is why, they wrote, “the district court found that they constitute unreasonable restraints of trade.”

“There is no reason to believe that eliminating restraints on education-related benefits will ‘fundamentally transform the century-old institution of NCAA sports,’ as Petitioners claim,” the athletes argued, accusing the NCAA of employing “sky-is-falling rhetoric” in an effort to obtain “nothing less than antitrust immunity.”

“Antitrust immunity for college sports is a question for the legislatures, not the courts.”