- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The NCAA competed with college athletes at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, telling the justices that its athletes are amateurs who don’t deserve compensation for their skills. 

The NCAA said a lower-court ruling that opens the door for compensating college athletes runs afoul of antitrust law, which protects consumers and promotes fair competition.

“That is nothing but pay for play,” said Seth Waxman, the lawyer who represented the NCAA.

Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the student-athletes, told the justices that the NCAA has been arguing for years that financial competition among colleges would destroy consumer demand for school sports.

“Demand for college sports continues to flourish,” Mr. Kessler said.

Lawyers for the students also argued that college sports are a multibillion dollar industry in which the athletes work, urging the justices to uphold a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that allows students to receive unlimited benefits if they’re “related to education.”

Students cannot be paid under NCAA rules, and scholarship money is capped at the cost of attending the school.

The case came before the justices after the NCAA challenged the appeals court ruling, saying it would allow the athletes to obtain internships that paid them unlimited amounts, providing a loophole that would undermine the NCAA’s control over college athletics.

Justices from both ideological wings on the court expressed skepticism over the NCAA’s arguments, but they also expressed concern over what litigation could be raised next if students are entitled to increased compensation.

“There will be a wide number of rules that are subject to challenge,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee, asked Mr. Waxman why the NCAA should get to define “pay” for college athletes. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, said antitrust courts typically don’t get to engage in “price-fixing.”

The Biden administration took the side of the students, telling the justices that the lower court’s ruling should be upheld because the NCAA’s fears of high-paying internships — and the impact — are unfounded.

“The district court here was focused on legitimate educational benefits,” said Elizabeth Prelogar, acting solicitor general. “This wasn’t going to become a vehicle for pay for play.”

Nearly half a million students play sports overseen by the NCAA at 1,100 colleges across the nation. If schools had to compensate student-athletes, it would place a financial burden on college athletic programs, the NCAA argued.

“For many decades, a hallmark of NCAA sports has been amateurism, the principle that student-athletes are not professionals,” the NCAA wrote in its brief. “The NCAA has thus long had a body of eligibility rules designed to establish a ‘clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports.’”

A group of former college athletes, aiming to strike down the prohibition, brought the case after the NCAA implemented restrictions on student compensation in 2014.

The lower courts gave the students a partial win, allowing unlimited benefits in some capacity, so long as it was connected to the students’ schooling.

The students told the Supreme Court that the 9th Circuit ruling was “modest” because it applies only to education-related benefits, “like computers, science equipment, musical instruments, postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, academic awards and internships.”

Jodi Balsam, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said the case is the “Super Bowl of sports law” that will determine the future of college athletics.

“Unease that the lower court decisions opened the floodgates of pay-for-play coincided with concern for the athletes who generate the riches pocketed by schools and coaches,” she said. “Antitrust should not provide a vehicle for perpetual litigation over and judicial micromanagement of joint ventures.”

A ruling is expected by the end of June.

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