Law & Courts

U.S. Supreme Court Rules for Athletes Over NCAA in Case on Education-Related Compensation

By Mark Walsh — June 21, 2021 5 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dealt a major defeat to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, unanimously upholding a lower-court injunction that requires increased education-related compensation of student-athletes, such as for graduate school scholarships, paid post-eligibility internships, and study abroad.

The case, NCAA v. Alston (No. 20-512), has drawn the interest of the precollegiate sports world for its potential impact on college recruitment of high school athletes. But the decision is likely to be widely, and immediately, felt in college sports.

Writing for the court, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said a federal district judge had applied the correct level of scrutiny under federal antitrust law when she ruled in part for a class of college student-athletes who challenged many of the NCAA’s compensation rules. The judge considered the NCAA’s restrictions on education-related aid a restraint on trade under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

“To the extent [the NCAA] means to propose a sort of judicially ordained immunity from the terms of the Sherman Act for its restraints of trade—that we should overlook its restrictions because they happen to fall at the intersection of higher education, sports, and money—we cannot agree,” Gorsuch said.

He said the Supreme Court could not resolve the national debate about amateurism in college sports, and whether the injunction went too far in “undervaluing the social benefits associated with amateur athletics,” or not far enough in granting “fuller relief” to student-athletes clamoring for more compensation.

“Our task is simply to review the district court judgment through the appropriate lens of antitrust law,” Gorsuch said. “That review persuades us the district court acted within the law’s bounds.”

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, said the court’s conclusion that the NCAA has violated the antitrust laws “marks an important and overdue course correction.”

The NCAA’s other rules barring non-education-related payments to college athletes and barring them from endorsement deals, which weren’t before the high court in this case, “also raise serious questions under the antitrust laws,” Kavanaugh said.

“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” he said. “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.”

Expansion of education aid, including payments of nearly $6,000

The NCAA said in a statement that “while today’s decision preserves the lower court ruling, it also reaffirms the NCAA’s authority to adopt reasonable rules and repeatedly notes that the NCAA remains free to articulate what are and are not truly educational benefits, consistent with the NCAA’s mission to support student-athletes.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert said in the statement that the organization remains committed to supporting so-called name, image, and likeness benefits for student athletes. That issue also was not before the court in this case, but the NCAA has been pressured by a growing number of state laws that would grant college athletes such NIL rights. Some of the laws, which clash with current NCAA rules, are set to take effect July 1.

In the Alston case, two lower courts rejected the original goal of the class action by college athletes, which was to remove all limits on compensation. But those courts found that the NCAA’s rules restricting education-related aid to student-athletes violated federal antitrust law.

A 2019 injunction in the case by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland, Calif., upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, and now by the Supreme Coiurt, authorizes the expansion of education aid to include unlimited payments for post-eligibility internships and annual cash payments of nearly $6,000 above scholarships and other aid that student-athletes now receive to cover the full “cost of attendance” at their institutions.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that its rules were “procompetitive” under antitrust principles because they help define college sports as a product distinct from professional sports.

Gorsuch, whose opinion outlined the history of intercollegiate sports going back to an 1852 boat race between Harvard and Yale that included lavish prizes, described college sports today as a “massive business” where TV rights fees bring in billions of dollars, the NCAA president earns $4 million per year, and some coaches earn much more than that.

“The NCAA is free to argue that, because of the special characteristics of its particular industry, it should be exempt from the usual operation of the antitrust laws—but that appeal is properly addressed to Congress,” Gorsuch said.

Kavanaugh, in his concurrence, said the bottom line of the case 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.”

He acknowledged that there might be “difficult policy and practical questions” if all the NCAA’s compensation rules were struck down, such as how paying athletes more might affect non-revenue sports and whether athletes in some sports but not others should receive pay. Also, he wondered how any compensation system would comply with Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs and which plays a key role in requiring equal athletic opportunities for female college athletes.

Kavanaugh said those questions might be resolved through legislation or even collective bargaining between colleges and student athletes.

The opinions did not address concerns raised about the case’s implications for high school sports.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, which writes rules for high school sports, had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the NCAA, arguing that under a ruling for the college athletes, “many premier high school student athletes would become motivated less by their love of sports and more by the prospect of being rewarded handsomely to play certain sports in college.”

There was no immediate response by the federation to a request for comment.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Data Webinar
Working Smarter, Not Harder with Data
There is a new paradigm shift in K-12 education. Technology and data have leapt forward, advancing in ways that allow educators to better support students while also maximizing their most precious resource – time. The
Content provided by PowerSchool
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Deepen the Reach and Impact of Your Leadership
This webinar offers new and veteran leaders a unique opportunity to listen and interact with four of the most influential educational thinkers in North America. With their expert insights, you will learn the key elements
Content provided by Solution Tree
Science K-12 Essentials Forum Teaching Science Today: Challenges and Solutions
Join this event which will tackle handling controversy in the classroom, and making science education relevant for all students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Supreme Court Blocks Biden Vaccine Mandate Applying to Schools in Much of the Country
The justices ruled 6-3 to stay an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule that covered schools in 26 states and two territories.
4 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo last April.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP
Law & Courts Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway
A federal appellate court panel commended Rhode Island students for the novel effort, but said Supreme Court precedent stood in the way.
3 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
Law & Courts High Court Appears Skeptical of Vaccine Mandate Covering Schools in Over Half the States
The Biden administration's OSHA rule applies to private employers with 100 or more workers, as well as school districts in 26 states.
4 min read
The Supreme Court shown Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Washington. The Supreme Court is taking up two major Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19 at a time of spiking coronavirus cases because of the omicron variant.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing two Biden administration efforts to bump up the nation's vaccination rate against COVID-19.
Evan Vucci/AP
Law & Courts Federal Judge Blocks Biden's COVID Vaccine Mandate for Head Start Teachers
In a challenge by 24 states, the judge's preliminary injunction also blocks a mask mandate for Head Start students age 2 or older.
4 min read
COVID face masks and gavel
iStock/Getty Images Plus