SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Competition should determine how much student athletes are compensated for their services, an attorney representing college players told a Ninth Circuit panel of judges Monday, urging the appellate court to broaden an injunction relaxing restrictions on student-athlete pay.
In March last year, Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s rules limiting student-athlete compensation to a few thousand dollars a year “overly and unnecessarily restrictive” in a class action led by former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston.
Alston represented thousands of current and former Bowl Subdivision football and men’s and women’s Division I basketball players claiming their scholarships did not cover their expenses.
In 2017, Wilken approved a $208 million settlement for college players affected by the NCAA’s “grant-in-aid” scholarship cap.
In her March 2019 ruling, Wilken – a Bill Clinton appointee – also found the rules violated antitrust laws by restraining trade in the market for a college education combined with athletics, the market for the players’ athletic services.
Wilken issued an injunction that barred the NCAA from limiting student athletes’ compensation for anything that would contribute to their studies, such as computers, postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad expenses, or paid internships. But she stopped short of allowing compensation not related to education.
Wilken said the 11 conferences that play within the NCAA will be allowed to offer non-cash, education-related benefits as well as academic awards on top of grant-in-aid as they see fit, though the NCAA would be able to regulate how schools provide them.
NCAA attorney Seth Waxman told the three-judge panel composed of Circuit Judges Milan Smith and Ronald Gould and Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas that Wilken’s injunction would upend the world of collegiate sports, painting a jaundiced portrait of colleges courting star prospects with extravagant offers of high-paying internships and luxury cars.
"Colleges can promise to pay thousands in cash each year that any student athlete remains eligible to play, and can also provide other lavish benefits so long as they are somehow related to education,” Waxman said.
Steve Berman, an attorney representing the Alston class, called Waxman’s characterization of the injunction “flat-out wrong” and said that “the injunction only requires the NCAA or the conferences to focus on educational-related benefits and nothing more.”
“But how is that defined?” Milan asked. “If you have an outstanding athlete you want to recruit and somebody else wants to recruit the same athlete, don’t you have some wiggle room within the injunction to entice the athlete to come to your school versus another school in a financial way?”
Berman said educational benefits were clearly defined. For example, schools or conferences could offer to pay for graduate school or a vocational school, which has a fixed price.