The NCAA Won’t Drop Its Fight to Curb Pay for Student Athletes

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NCAA Athletic Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation
Case # 19-15566

① The Origin

Since the 1950s, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has insisted that amateurism—the idea that college athletes play for the love of sports, not for money—was what made intercollegiate athletics unique. If players were paid, the association claimed, fans would turn against college sports and competition would be diminished. In antitrust terms, the NCAA thus contended that amateurism was “procompetitive.”

② The Precedent

In 2009 an antitrust lawsuit was filed in California against the NCAA. The plaintiffs, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, argued that the NCAA was illegally suppressing the wages of the players and that the association’s amateurism rules were anticompetitive and hence illegal. The NCAA dragged the case out for years, but it was finally tried in 2014. The trial judge, Claudia Wilken, agreed with O’Bannon. But she also put restrictions on how much athletes could get. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit later ruled that any benefit an athlete received had to be “related to education.” The NCAA quickly moved to cap those benefits.

③ The Case

The current case was filed in March 2014. Its goal was to get Wilken to eliminate all limits on athlete compensation—to move college sports to a free market. Again, the NCAA filed various delaying motions. Again, it took five years before the trial began. And again, Wilken ruled mostly for the plaintiffs. She issued a permanent injunction to prevent the NCAA from restricting education-related compensation.

④ The Appeal

Did the NCAA appeal? Of course! At a March 2020 hearing, it argued that without caps, players could get lavish benefits such as cars, trips abroad, and highly paid internships at Nike. The 9th Circuit didn’t buy it, ruling in May that Wilken had it right. But unpaid college athletes won’t be getting more benefits anytime soon. On July 7, the NCAA told the 9th Circuit that it planned to appeal to the Supreme Court. In football terms, that’s what they call a Hail Mary.
 
● Aren’t college athletes also allowed to get money for endorsements and autographs? A number of states have passed so-called name, image, and likeness bills that would eventually allow the practice. But the NCAA has gone to Congress, seeking legislation that would put it in control of the process—and minimize what athletes will get.
 
● Have benefits for athletes improved since O’Bannon? Yes. Scholarship athletes now get a check for what’s called the “full cost of attendance”—the difference between the scholarship and what college really costs, with books, fees, and the occasional pizza. At the University of Alabama, that amounts to $6,564 per school year.
 
Nocera is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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