Jun 22, 2021 - Sports

The NCAA model is unraveling

S patch unraveling
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the NCAA on Monday, issuing another significant blow to the embattled organization.

Why it matters: The ruling in NCAA vs. Alston chips away at core aspects of amateurism and opens the door for future legal challenges that could upend the NCAA's current business model built on unpaid labor.

Details: SCOTUS ruled Monday that the NCAA was violating antitrust law by placing limits on academic-related benefits that schools can provide to student-athletes.

  • Schools can now provide their athletes with unlimited compensation as long as it's connected to education (i.e. laptops, paid internships).
  • More importantly, the ruling suggests that SCOTUS may be open to more substantial legal challenges of NCAA rules in the future.

Of note: This is the first time since 1985 that the Supreme Court has weighed in on the governance of college sports.

What they're saying: The court's opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, was limited to academic-related benefits. But Justice Brett Kavanaugh's concurring opinion expanded the scope, arguing that the entire NCAA operation is illegal.

"Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.
"Law firms cannot conspire to cabin lawyers' salaries in the name of providing legal services out of a 'love of the law.' Hospitals cannot agree to cap nurses' income in order to create a 'purer' form of helping the sick."
Justice Kavanaugh
Data: NCAA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
Data: NCAA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Between the lines: During one of the most politically divided times in American history, the NCAA has managed to bring both sides of the aisle together as its common enemy.

  • "[The NCAA] assumed conservatism's presumed affinity for the status quo would supersede conservatism's demonstrated affinity for free markets," writes The Athletic's Andy Staples (subscription).
  • "In the process, the schools and the NCAA placed themselves in the middle of a pincer movement between those who historically champion open markets (the right) and those who historically champion workers' rights (the left)."

The big picture: So there's that. Meanwhile, the NCAA is facing an even more pressing issue: Name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation.

  • The organization has been urging Congress to pass a federal bill to govern how student-athletes earn NIL money, but none have passed. In the meantime, 19 states passed their NIL own bills.
  • Six of those bills take effect on July 1, meaning the NCAA has nine days to pass its own national guidelines to ensure uniformity and avoid state-by-state chaos.
  • If they fail to do so, athletes in six states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas — will be able to earn NIL money while the rest of the country can't.

The last word: "It feels like the NCAA is between three rocks and four hard places," Gabe Feldman, a Tulane professor and NIL expert, told SI (subscription). "There are so many forces closing in on them."

The bottom line: The Alston case represents another crack in the foundation of college sports. Monday's ruling didn't bring the whole system down, but it made it clear that amateurism's days are numbered.

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