Dec 17, 2020 - Sports

Knives out for the NCAA

The Supreme Court of the United States
The U.S. Supreme Court Building. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The NCAA's strict limits on college athletes' compensation get less tenable every day.

Driving the news: The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging the NCAA's ban on certain education-related benefits, like laptops and scholarships for graduate school.

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is set to introduce a "College Athletes Bill of Rights" today that would, among other things, require revenue-generating sports to share their profits with athletes.

The backdrop: Booker's proposal is the latest effort in Congress to let college athletes share in the profits they generate, but it's not the first, and several states have passed or considered similar bills.

  • "The NCAA is basically juggling flaming knives right here," Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, told WashPost.

Between the lines: These various shots across the NCAA's bow may not succeed individually — the association could very well win the Supreme Court case, and action in Congress is still an uphill climb.

  • The NCAA has so far managed to fend off nearly every formal effort to chip away at its tight restrictions on player compensation, but the pressure just keeps mounting, and that alone is already making a difference.
  • An NCAA committee is slated to vote next month on proposals to let some athletes profit off their name, image and likeness.

Details: The case the Supreme Court agreed to take up yesterday — a suit filed by former West Virginia RB Shawne Alston — doesn't deal directly with cash payments to athletes, but rather with the NCAA’s ban on other benefits more directly tied to education.

  • The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this spring that those rules violate antitrust law, because they give universities the power to "artificially cap compensation at a level that is not commensurate with student-athletes' value."
  • The ban on cash payments, the court said, might be essential to the NCAA's branding as an amateur league, but allowing schools to give athletes a study-abroad scholarship, or to cover the cost of science equipment for a class, would not make them professional athletes.

The other side: The 9th Circuit's ruling "will fundamentally transform the century-old institution of NCAA sports, blurring the traditional line between college and professional athletes," the NCAA said in a brief to the high court.

What's next: The court will likely hand down a decision by June.

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