The Supreme Court sided with college athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association after a unanimous 9–0 decision affirmed an education-related increase in college athlete compensation Monday.
Under the decision, the NCAA can provide student athletes unlimited education-related compensation, like compensation for internships or funds for musical instruments. The justices rejected the association’s claim that its amateur league status could not be maintained if athletes could receive pay.
“It’s tremendous to win this 9-0,” Jeffrey Kessler, lead plaintiff’s attorney, told ESPN Monday morning. “Hopefully it will be the major next step on the road to a true fair competitive system for these athletes.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered the court’s opinion, upholding the district court’s decision that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust laws by placing a cap on education-related benefits that schools can provide to athletes.
“To the extent it 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 wrote in the decision.
Though the Court limited the scope of its decision specifically to education-related benefits rather than examining the entirety of the NCAA’s business model, Kavanaugh penned a blistering concurring opinion that suggests NCAA rules restricting any type of compensation may no longer hold water against future antitrust challenges.
“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,” Kavanaugh wrote. “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.”
In the past two years, the NCAA has become the subject of increased scrutiny as 19 states have passed laws rebuking rules imposed by the organization, allowing players to receive third-party endorsements, ESPN reported Monday. Congress is also in the midst of debating several bills seeking to reform the organization, like the College Athlete Bill of Rights Act and the College Athlete Right to Organize Act.
“We remain committed to working with Congress to chart a path forward, which is a point the Supreme Court expressly stated in its ruling,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement.
Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in favor of former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston in 2019, about five years after the original case was filed, arguing that schools should be able to provide their athletes with educational equipment, study abroad programs, internships and cash rewards in exchange for academic accomplishments, culminating in a $208 million class action settlement, ABC News reported.
The NCAA later asked the Supreme Court to review the ruling.
Wilken also ruled against the NCAA in 2014 after former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon led a lawsuit challenging NCAA bylaws prohibiting colleges from granting student-athletes a share of the revenue when their image is used in broadcast and other forms of contracts.
The NCAA’s attorney’s appealed the lower court decision, claiming the measures were “micromanaging” rules that should be articulated by the NCAA itself and that the added benefits were “akin to professional salaries.”
Steve Berman, co-counsel in the Alston case, is also currently leading a lawsuit challenging the limits the NCAA is placing on future name, image and likeness opportunities for college athletes, ESPN reported. Berman told ESPN on Monday that his firm is considering a more aggressive approach by asking the court to remove any restrictions on athlete compensation.
“In light of Justice Kavanaugh’s comments, we’re rethinking whether we should once again challenge pay for play,” Berman said. “Kavanaugh is suggesting you should go after everything.”