Of all the hot button issues in American politics and culture right now, apparently one can unite liberals and conservative alike: how terribly the NCAA treats its student athletes. Monday morning, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with a group of student athletes who challenged NCAA restrictions on compensation. While this case dealt only with a limited form of student compensation, the writing is on the wall, and college sports as we know it are forever going to be changed.
The lawsuit started in 2014 when a West Virginia football player sued the NCAA as the lead plaintiff in a case brought by Division I football players and men’s and women’s basketball players. They claimed that the NCAA operates an illegal monopoly by prohibiting its member schools from compensating student-athletes in the form of educational benefits. This was not a case about paying student-athletes for their performance. Rather, it was just about this limited form of compensation, things like scholarships for graduate school, payment for academic tutoring, and the provision of internships after the athlete finishes playing.
The students claimed that schools should be free to provide these things to students if those schools wanted. It was not a claim that any school was required to pay student-athletes this way, but rather that if a school thought it could attract better student-athletes by compensating them with these benefits, the school should be allowed to — without the NCAA stepping in to stop them. Put a bit more technically, the students claimed the NCAA was restraining competition with its rule against compensation and engaging in anti-competitive behavior that violated federal laws against monopolies.
The NCAA’s only real argument in response was that amateurism is at the heart of college sports and that allowing colleges to compensate student-athletes, even if just minimally, would ruin the entire enterprise. Basically, the NCAA argued fans enjoy — not the competition or the athleticism of college sports — but rather rooting for people who are paid nothing for putting their bodies on the line.
That argument was so absurd that it got the entire Supreme Court — liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike — to rule against the NCAA. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Court said that the NCAA cannot escape federal laws against monopolies just by invoking some sense of nostalgia for a time long past when athletes performed for the love of the game and nothing else. If that were so, other industries would also be able to claim some unique characteristic of its field and say that they were exempt from federal antitrust laws. The Court refused this exception and said that if the NCAA wants an exemption from federal law, it must get one from Congress.
On its face, this is a limited decision, as it only applies to education-related expenses. But everyone in the world can see the writing on the wall for the NCAA — there’s really no reason at all this decision won’t soon apply to paying student athletes. Justice Bret Kavanaugh pointed this out in a separate concurrence. And he did not pull punches: “The bottom line 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.”
Importantly, Kavanaugh pointed out the racial disparities at issue here. “The student athletes who generate the revenues, many of whom are African American and from lower-income backgrounds, end up with little or nothing.” He concluded powerfully, “The NCAA is not above the law.”
This decision is a BIG DEAL. Though for now the decision applies only to education-related expenses, the NCAA’s lawyers today are surely quaking in their boots, knowing that it won’t be long before their entire business model is deemed illegal. We don’t know when this will happen, but college sports is about to be forever changed. Student athletes, who now risk their health and safety for the entertainment and enrichment of others, are going to eventually get what’s theirs. The system, which enriches mostly white school administrators and coaches at the expense of a large population of Black and other students of color, will have to fundamentally restructure.
What takes its place is anyone’s guess. A multi-billion dollar industry doesn’t suddenly see the light and transform itself into an egalitarian, anti-racist institution all because of one court decision. But, it will change, and it’s up to fans, students, athletes, and everyone else to make sure that what comes next is fairer for everyone involved, especially the student-athletes we love to watch compete.