Day of Reckoning Approaches Over Pay for Student-Athletes

Houston forward Justin Gorham (4) celebrates beating Syracuse 62-46 on Saturday, March 28, after a Sweet 16 game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

WASHINGTON (CN) — With the landscape of amateur athletics hanging in the balance, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to plunge into a hard-fought paradigm: fair compensation for the young adults who make up the multibillion-dollar college sports industry.

The case NCAA v. Alston is up for oral arguments Wednesday morning, nearly a year after the Ninth Circuit affirmed an injunction against compensation caps for student-athletes. So long as such funds relate to their studies, the ruling allows for schools to pay students unlimited amounts.

Matthew Mitten, a law professor at Marquette University Law School and the executive director of the National Sports Law Institute, explained over the phone that the NCAA is worried about the integrity of its rules on amateurism. 

“The concern is that if member-schools can provide more than” the full cost of attendance, they effectively begin to pay students based on athletics status, and the stronger athletes enroll with whatever school is offering the most money.

“It starts looking like pay-for-play,” Mitten said.

The Ninth Circuit previously ruled in a separate case that the NCAA’s compensation rules violated antitrust law. Keeping cash off the table, however, the ruling for former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon capped relief at tuition coverage.

There are about 1,100 schools in the NCAA. After the O’Bannon case, those schools were limited to paying student-athletes only the full cost of attendance — including tuition, room, board and books — with a few thousand dollars extra for, say, traveling home on winter break or buying a laptop for class, so long as the funds were related to their education. 

For student-athletes, however, a strict training schedule can make part-time work to cover any other expenses impossible. 

Wednesday’s hearing stems from a suit led by Shawne Alston, a former running back for the University of West Virginia, and Justine Hartman, a former basketball player for the University of California at Berkeley. The former former Division I players said the NCAA’s scholarship caps left them unable to cover the expenses of enrollment.

Alston, for example, testified that he didn’t have enough for food or his phone bill, even though his scholarship was about $25,000 to $28,000 a year. Likewise, Hartman testified that she and her teammates were rewarded with Beats headphones and an iPad when her team reached the Final Four, but she could barely cover her daily expenses. 

“We don’t have the means to excel at the highest level academically,” Hartman said. “We go without a lot.” 

On appeal, the NCAA has leaned on a Supreme Court case from the 1980s, NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, saying it needs “ample latitude” to maintain amateurism: Limiting pay helps maintain an even playing-field, it argues.  

In 1981, the NCAA negotiated with ABC and CBS over how to televise their football games, but didn’t allow schools to deviate from their plan. Two of these schools, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia, worked out a separate contract alongside other schools in the College Football Association with NBC, which gave them higher revenues than those provided through the NCAA’s contract.  

When the NCAA threatened disciplinary action for any school that complied with this plan, the schools filed suit. The District Court that heard the case found that the NCAA’s contract violated the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, barring any consolidation of power that restrains the free market.  

Though the Supreme Court affirmed in 1984, the court was split 7-2. Justice Byron White wrote in dissent that the NCAA plan “reflects the [organization’s] fundamental policy or preserving amateurism.” 

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