The NCAA’s claim of overseeing “amateur” sports, a position as antiquated as baseball’s long-rejected defense of its infamous reserve clause, has been firmly rejected.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued one of its most unsurprising decisions ever last week when it delivered a brutal, precedent-setting bench-slapping to the NCAA.
In a 9-0 decision, the high court ruled the NCAA could not bar fianancial benefits — aka compensation — to what are euphemistically called “student athletes.”
The NCAA’s high-handed approach violates anti-trust laws because its rules unlawfully block the college athletes on whose backs hundreds of millions of dollars are generated the opportunity to be compensated for their labor.
The court said that the NCAA’s characterization of its approach as legally defensible because it regulates “amateur” sports is just a euphemism for illegality.
“The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America. All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that ‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks. 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. News organizations cannot join forces to curtail pay to reporters to preserve a ‘tradition’ of public-minded journalism. Movie studios cannot collude to slash benefits to camera crews to kindle a ‘spirit of amateurism’ in Hollywood. Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a withering concurrent opinion.
Justice Neil Gorsuch was less caustic, but no less clear, in the court’s majority opinion. He characterized the NCAA as overseeing a “massive business” in which “those who run this enterprise profit in a different way than the student-athletes whose activities they oversee.”
There may have been a time when the NCAA’s legal position could have passed the laugh test. But that’s long gone.
Today, NCAA boss Mark Emmert is paid roughly $4 million a year while television networks pay many, many millions of dollars annually to broadcast men’s basketball and football games. Coaches and athletic directors receive huge salaries while the NCAA oversees rules that allow, in comparison, miserly benefits to the athletes.
The question now is, “What’s next?”
It’s impossible to say. But everyone should hope that the court’s decision to apply a two-by-four to the heads of NCAA officials will lead to realistic rules changes.
There’s no guarantee that will happen. The NCAA is composed of as hidebound a bunch of bureaucrats as ever trod the earth. Officious in their actions, extreme in their resistance to changes in the status quo, its leadership has been out of step for decades.
Remember its old rules purposely limiting television broadcasts of football games? It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision to put an end to that foolishness.
Critics of the court’s decision suggest it didn’t go far enough because it leaves the NCAA free to come up with its own solutions. That may well be true, but Emmert & Co. should understand the need for a collaborative effort involving legislators, university officials and representatives of any other group who can make a positive contribution to regulating what could become a wild-west atmosphere involving athletes in major revenue sports.
The court’s decision resolved a narrow legal issue involving payments and benefits that relate to education. As noted in news reports, the court’s decision “did not directly touch on the issue of whether athletes may earn money from their names, images and likenesses.”
But that train, too, is leaving the station. New laws allowing athletes to do just that will soon take effect in a handful of states — including Florida, Alabama and Texas. It won’t be long before other states, including Illinois, join them.
The widespread fear generated by the court’s ruling is that top athletes will be able to engage in bidding wars for their services, in other words, that the current recruiting wars will go further off the rails.
It’s impossible to discount that possibility. At the same time, everyone should remember that the number of real superstar athletes is limited.
Whatever occurs, the games — as wonderful as they are — will go on. There’s a huge fan base for major college sports, and that market will be met one way or another.
The court’s decision lays the groundwork for a more equitable distribution of the vast financial rewards generated by the college sports enterprise. The athletes have been on the outside looking in for far too long, and that’s about to change.