NCAA Risks Losing Grip on Sports as Supreme Court Weighs Amateurism

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Even with March Madness in full swing, the NCAA’s real competition this month will take place at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could loosen its grip over college athletics.

In an antitrust clash set for argument Wednesday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association will ask the justices to overturn a ruling that would let member schools offer student-athletes more in the way of education-related compensation.

The case promises to produce the biggest Supreme Court ruling in decades for the NCAA, which is seeking to shield its rules from tough antitrust scrutiny and preserve what it sees as the amateur nature of college sports.

“This is a big one, and it goes to the heart of amateurism,” said Elizabeth McCurrach, a lawyer at BakerHostetler in New York who focuses on sports law.

The NCAA and its biggest conferences are battling college football and basketball players who got a partial victory after they sued to let schools start paying athletes. A federal judge in California said the NCAA didn’t need its limits on education-related benefits, such as computers and internships, to accomplish its professed goal of preserving college sports as a distinct product.

Those benefits “could not be confused with a professional athlete’s salary,” U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken wrote. She said the NCAA rules “do not follow any coherent definition of amateurism.”

A federal appeals court upheld the decision.

Defining Amateurism

The NCAA, which started as a rules-making body for football, has overseen intercollegiate athletics in the U.S. since 1906 and now supervises two dozen sports at about 1,100 member schools. Its March Madness basketball tournament, one of its most popular events, returned this year after being canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

The NCAA says a 1984 Supreme Court decision gives it wide latitude to define amateurism and set eligibility rules. Although the NCAA lost that case, with the court blocking its plan to limit television coverage, Justice John Paul Stevens’ opinion said the organization needs “ample latitude” to preserve “a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.”

Stevens also wrote that, to preserve college football as a product, “athletes must not be paid.”

In its Supreme Court appeal, the NCAA said the 1984 ruling means “rules that are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports are procompetitive and should be upheld against antitrust challenge.” The association said Wilken’s ruling “will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports.”

The athletes say the NCAA is effectively seeking an exemption from the antitrust laws, something they say the 1984 decision doesn’t provide.

“The student-athletes who brought this case proved that the challenged rules are patently more restrictive than necessary to preserve demand for college sports as a distinct product,” the group argued.

Names and Likenesses

The case reaches the Supreme Court amid a push in Congress and state legislatures to let athletes earn money off the use of their names, images and likenesses. The NCAA has been developing a plan to start letting athletes earn that type of income but in January delayed a vote on the change.

“The NCAA obviously is hoping that the Supreme Court decision gives them more firepower” in that debate, McCurrach said.

The NCAA has long limited what athletes can receive from colleges and universities. Since 1956, they have been allowed to offer scholarships that cover tuition, fees, room and board, and books.

The Biden administration is backing the athletes in the case. The argument Wednesday will be the first for Elizabeth Prelogar as acting solicitor general, the government’s top lawyer at the Supreme Court. The administration hasn’t yet nominated anyone to fill the position permanently.

The court is scheduled to rule by June in the case, NCAA v. Alston, 20-512.

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