NCAA Not Necessarily Liable Under Title IX, Supreme Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — March 03, 1999 2 min read
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The National Collegiate Athletic Association is not subject to federal anti-discrimination laws such as Title IX merely because its membership comprises colleges and universities that receive federal funds, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.

The unanimous ruling in National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Smith (Case No. 98-84) was a narrow one. For procedural reasons, the justices passed up the opportunity to decide whether the powerful sports governing body might be subject to Title IX based on two alternative arguments.

But the Feb. 23 ruling should bring some comfort to K-12 and higher education associations of all types whose membership is made up of schools that receive federal aid.

In her opinion for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the argument that the NCAA is subject to Title IX merely because it receives dues from colleges and universities that receive federal money and are themselves subject to the law.

“Dues payments from recipients of federal funds, we hold, do not suffice to render the dues recipient subject to Title IX,” she wrote.

Waiver Sought

The case involves Renee M. Smith, a former college volleyball player who sued the NCAA when she was denied a waiver that would have allowed her to play intercollegiate volleyball at two universities where she was a graduate student.

Ms. Smith played on the volleyball team at St. Bonaventure University for two years in the early 1990s before receiving her bachelor’s degree in just 2« years. When she became a graduate student at Hofstra University and later at the University of Pittsburgh, she sought to use her two remaining years of athletic eligibility to play on their volleyball teams.

The NCAA has a rule prohibiting student athletes from playing at an institution other than their undergraduate college or university, but it allows the athletes to seek a waiver.

Ms. Smith alleged in a lawsuit that the governing body grants a disproportionate number of such waivers to men. She sued the NCAA under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs receiving federal funds.

Ms. Smith lost in a federal district court. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Philadelphia, ruled that because the NCAA receives dues from recipients of federal dollars, it is covered by Title IX.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling.

“At most, the association’s receipt of dues demonstrates that it indirectly benefits from the federal assistance afforded its members,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. “This showing, without more, is insufficient to trigger Title IX coverage.”

However, the court did not address two other theories under which Ms. Smith now argues the NCAA should be subject to Title IX.

Ms. Smith’s lawyers argued before the high court in January that the association is a direct recipient of federal funds under the National Youth Sports Program, a federal program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.

And, joined by the Clinton administration, Ms. Smith’s lawyers argued that when an association has been delegated control over an activity by its members, as the NCAA has been in the supervision of college athletics, it is responsible for any discrimination in that activity.

But those arguments were not fully addressed by the lower federal courts. Justice Ginsburg wrote that “we do not decide in the first instance issues not decided below.”

The court sent Ms. Smith’s case back to the 3rd Circuit court, where the alternative arguments for holding the NCAA subject to Title IX could be revived.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as NCAA Not Necessarily Liable Under Title IX, Supreme Court Rules


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