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In a landmark ruling on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the NCAA’s educational perk restrictions for student-athletes is a violation of antitrust law. The unanimous opinion from Justice Neil Gorsuch rejects the NCAA’s attempt to justify its rules on the basis of promoting amateurism.
The outcome is a long-time coming as student-athletes have been in court for more than a decade in their drive for compensation. The latest opinion — National Collegiate Athletic Assn’ v. Alston — isn’t quite as broad as some athletes originally wanted. For example, there’s no striking down of limits for non-educational pay. And unlike some early iterations of this case, there’s no examination of whether compensating athletes might erode public interest in the TV cash cow that is college sports.
But in rejecting rules limiting graduate scholarships, paid internships and payments for academic tutoring for student-athletes, the high court chooses to subject the association to ordinary antitrust scrutiny and not craft any special immunity. The justices note that college conferences reap hundreds of millions annually from TV contracts and say there should be no deference to the existing collusion just because the system is built as a joint venture where collaboration is a necessity to have any product. Gorsuch also leads the other justices in agreeing with a lower appellate court concluding there are less restrictive means in achieving the supposed pro-competitive benefits of amateurism.
That said, this opinion won’t be the last word nor court battle on the topic of pay for student-athletes.
As many states through the nation enact new laws giving local amateur athletes the right to profit off of their name and likeness, Gorsuch ends his opinion with a nod to those who think there should be fuller relief for those participating in college sports who haven’t profited off of those big TV and video game deals. He echoes the 9th Circuit by reiterating, “Our task is simply to review the district court judgment through the appropriate lens of antitrust law.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh signals he’s ready to blow up the NCAA’s entire no-pay regime.
“The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels,” he writes. “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 then adds, “Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor.”
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