Law & Courts

U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh NCAA Rules on Education-Related Aid for Student-Athletes

By Mark Walsh — December 16, 2020 2 min read
In this Nov. 5, 2020 photo, The Supreme Court is seen in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to take up a major case about whether the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rules limiting the amount of education-related aid that student-athletes may receive violate federal antitrust law.

The case arises amid debates about whether student-athletes, especially in the top revenue-producing sports of football and basketball, should be compensated as employees. The case granted review, however, is more specifically about an athlete-led challenge to limits on the amount of payments “related to education” that go beyond athletic scholarships to cover items such as computers and science equipment as well as financial aid for internships, study abroad, or post-eligibility graduate instruction.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that the NCAA could continue to limit payments unrelated to education, or “pay for play,” but that its limits on education-related aid were a form of restraint of trade that violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The NCAA, as well as the top collegiate athletic conferences, appealed to the high court.

“The 9th Circuit’s decision will turn student-athletes into professionals, eradicating the pro-competitive differentiation that this court and others have recognized as the decades-long hallmark of NCAA sports,” the college governing body said in court papers. “The decision allows unlimited payments to student-athletes, so long as payments like uncapped internships can somehow be described as ‘related to education.’”

The student-athletes in the suit, which includes Division 1 male and female basketball players and Football Bowl Subdivision players, argued in their response that the massive sums the NCAA and conferences receive in broadcast rights for football and basketball “allow schools to spend lavishly, including on seven-figure coaches’ salaries and palatial athletic facilities. Yet the elite athletes in these sports—the ones whose talent and labor make it all possible—receive almost none of this revenue.”

The athletes contend that the NCAA and the conferences are seeking “nothing less than antitrust immunity,” which they must seek from Congress, not the courts.

The athletes note that in the wake of decisions in a separate case that invalidated NCAA rules barring student-athletes from being paid for licensing their names, images, and likenesses (such as in ads or videogames), five states have passed laws allowing such compensation, with bills in Congress that would do the same. Now is not the time for the Supreme Court to get involved, the student-athletes argued.

But the court nonetheless granted review in NCAA v. Alston (Case No 20-512) and American Athletic Conference v. Alston (No. 20-520). The consolidated cases will likely be argued sometime next spring, with a decision expected by late June.

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