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Supreme Court Ruling Could Reshape The Face Of College Athletics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the NCAA cannot limit educational benefits to student-athletes. The unanimous vote rejected the NCAA's claim that it is protected from the nation's antitrust laws, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The high court's opinion may appear narrow in scope, but it could reshape the face of collegiate athletics. The NCAA had argued that amateurism in college sports is what distinguishes it from professional sports, what makes it attractive to consumers and thus, that's why it should be exempt from the antitrust laws. The court, however, unanimously rejected that argument. Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch said that the NCAA, quote, "seeks immunity from the normal operation of the antitrust laws," an immunity which Gorsuch said is neither justified by the antitrust law nor the previous opinions of the Supreme Court.

In a blistering concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh added that the sports traditions near and dear to alumni and others, quote, "cannot justify the NCAA's decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student-athletes who are not fairly compensated." Nowhere else in America can business get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate, he said. The NCAA is not above the law.

Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University, says the decision was broader than he expected.

GABE FELDMAN: This is a modest loss for the NCAA but potentially opens the door for a massive loss and a complete changing of the amateurism model and the limits on compensation to college athletes.

TOTENBERG: So what is likely to happen now that colleges and universities recruiting student-athletes can offer all manner of educational benefits? Oliver Luck is a former top NCAA official, a former NFL player and the father of three former college athletes.

OLIVER LUCK: This is a victory for the students because the substantive decision in this case would allow a university or a conference to provide benefits that cannot be capped by the NCAA as long as they're tethered to education.

TOTENBERG: He thinks the rules for what can and cannot be offered are likely to be institutional.

LUCK: So if you're a star gymnast and you're 17 years old and choosing between, you know, three different schools, those schools theoretically, now, could offer you all sorts of academically related benefits - you know, a year abroad, internships. They could pay for your law school or medical school if you decided to go on and get an additional degree or two.

TOTENBERG: But other sports law experts think that the individual Division 1 conferences might take over the job of making the rules for what benefits the recruiters in each conference can offer, the idea being that the superrich Power Five conferences could continue that way to spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually, leaving the more modestly funded conferences to compete at a lower level.

Len Elmore, a former NBA and college basketball star, worries about an arms race in college recruitment that would defeat the quid pro quo that inspired athletic scholarships - namely, that athletes get a free education, something they couldn't otherwise afford, and they graduate without debt. Elmore, co-chair of the independent Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, would like to see the rules for college athletics more broadly changed.

LEN ELMORE: The Knight Commission just released a report on racial equity. If you put resources into recommendations that we made in achieving racial equity, you know, we would balance the experience of Black athletes upon whose backs the revenue-generating sports are balanced.

TOTENBERG: Walter Harrison is a former chairman of the NCAA Board of Governors, former president of Hartford University and also a member of the Knight Commission. He worries, too, about an arms race in recruiting, especially the big-time football teams that are eligible for the playoffs.

WALTER HARRISON: That's why, on the Knight Commission, we believe big-time football ought to be something unto itself. That sport ought to be separated entirely from the rest of the NCAA because the money flowing into that sport is just different than other sports.

TOTENBERG: That would allow the other conferences to do their own thing, he says, though there would certainly be problems that would have to be worked out - for instance, in basketball, where schools like Villanova and Georgetown are often contenders in big tournaments, but they don't play top-tier football. These are not the only imminent changes in college sports. Already, some 20 states have enacted laws that make it illegal for the NCAA to bar student-athletes from making money from their name, image or likeness. And the first batch of those laws goes into effect July 1.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.