Supreme Court Seems Ready to Back Payments to Student-Athletes
WASHINGTON – Judges from all ideological backgrounds joined in Supreme Court arguments on Wednesday to express skepticism over the NCAA’s position that it could ban relatively small payments to student-athletes in the name of amateurism despite antitrust laws. But some of the same judges also seemed worried about opening the floodgates to other challenges.
Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh said “antitrust laws should not be a cover for the exploitation of student-athletes,” adding that he doubted college sports fans understood amateurism required it.
“Paying no wages to workers who make schools billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want schools to pay their workers nothing,” he said, seems “entirely circular and even somewhat disturbing. “.
Justice Clarence Thomas noted that other college sports participants receive huge sums of money. “It seems strange to me that the salaries of the coaches have exploded,” he said, “and they are in the amateur ranks, just like the players.”
In contrast, said Judge Elena Kagan, colleges and universities have used their combined market power “to set athlete salaries at extremely low levels, far below what the market would set if allowed to operate. “.
A move in favor of the education-related payments at issue in this case would be one of the biggest advances to date in the effort to pay college athletes, which has gained momentum in recent years as one state after another is examining proposals to enable them to profit from their reputation. It would also be another blow to the NCAA, which found its business model increasingly under siege and argued that payments would effectively professionalize students.
While there seemed to be something like a consensus for the payments at issue, several judges said they feared such a decision could cause a deluge of other challenges.
“How do we know,” Judge Sonia Sotomayor asked, “that we are not just destroying the game as it is? “
Judge Stephen G. Breyer added: “I am very concerned that the judges are going into the matter of deciding how amateur sports should be managed.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the NCAA was not free to limit educational benefits for Division I football and basketball players. The ruling authorized payments for things like musical instruments, scientific equipment, graduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, college scholarships, and internships. It did not authorize the outright payment of wages.
The court rejected the NCAA’s argument that athlete compensation alienated sports fans who value student amateur status. “Uncapping certain education benefits would preserve consumer demand for varsity athletics just as well as the contested rules,” Chief Justice Sidney R. Thomas wrote for a unanimous panel of three judges of the Court call from the United States to the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.
“Such benefits are easily distinguished from professional salaries,” he wrote, as they are education-related and could be provided in kind rather than cash. “The record provides ample evidence,” added Judge Thomas, “that the provision of education-related benefits does not and will not turn off college sports fans.”
In Wednesday’s argument, Seth P. Waxman, an NCAA lawyer, said “these new allowances are akin to professional wages.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. responded that some of the payments the association already authorizes were of a similar nature.
“Schools can pay up to $ 50,000 for a $ 10 million insurance policy to protect student-athletes for their future income,” he said. “Now that looks a lot like paying to play.”
Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., drawing on memoir supporting the players, painted a grim picture of the lives and futures of the athletes.
“They are faced with training demands that leave little time or energy for study, constant pressure to put sport above schooling, pressure to drop out of majors and difficult classes, graduation rates really unbelievably low, ”he said. “Only a small percentage manage to make money in professional sports.”
“So the argument is that they are recruited, they are exhausted, and then they are put aside without even a college degree,” he said. “How can we defend this in the name of amateurism?
Mr Waxman said the alternative would be worse. “If you allow them to be paid,” he said, “they will spend even more time in athletics and pay even less attention to academics.”
Judge Alito said the athletes were already paid. “They get lower admission standards,” he said. “They get tuition, room and board, and other things. It is a form of remuneration. So the distinction is not whether they will be paid. It is the form in which they are going to be paid and how much they are going to be paid.
Mr Waxman said paid internships come with particular risks because they can involve unlimited sums.
Judge Sotomayor responded that the NCAA remains free to set limits. “If you think internships should be linked in some way to the educational experience,” she said, “you can make rules for that.”
Judge Thomas said paying athletes “looks good for higher level schools, be it, you know, Alabama, Ohio State, and Nebraska.” But he said he was concerned that “the bigger schools would start selecting athletes from lower schools with the transfer portal just because they can afford that income.”
Jeffrey L. Kessler, an attorney for Shawne Alston, a former University of West Virginia backer, and other student-athletes challenging NCAA rules, said “these schools are not competing now.” .
“Alabama pays its weight trainers $ 700,000 a year,” he said. “None of these little schools can do that.”
The Supreme Court last examined how antitrust laws applied to the association in 1984, ruling that its restrictions on television coverage of college football matches were illegal. But the decision, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, included an influential passage on student-athletes.
“The NCAA plays a vital role in maintaining a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports,” Majority Judge John Paul Stevens wrote. “There is no doubt that a great deal of latitude is needed to play this role, or that the preservation of the student-athlete in higher education adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics and is very important. made consistent with the objectives “of antitrust laws.
The Biden administration filed a brief supporting athletes in the new case, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, # 20-512, claiming the Ninth Circuit struck the right balance.
“The court has focused on legitimate education spending,” acting solicitor general Elizabeth B. Prelogar told justices on Wednesday.
Other than the coronavirus pandemic, no issue has recently demanded more attention from the NCAA than the rights of student-athletes, especially if they should be able to enjoy their fame. College sports leaders have long feared that easing age-old rules could open up a different array of challenges, but they have faced increasing pressure in recent years from Congress and many state houses. from the country.
More importantly, a Florida law that directly challenges NCAA policies is expected to go into effect this summer, and California lawmakers are considering a proposal to expedite a similar measure there.
Although the NCAA has vowed to rewrite its rules, it delayed final approval over the winter after the Trump administration’s Justice Department expressed doubts. And Congress hasn’t rushed to give the association the kind of political and legal cover it dreams of.
Wednesday’s argument had lighter moments, such as when Mr. Waxman mistakenly addressed Judge Thomas as “Mr. Chief Justice.”
“Thanks for the promotion,” Judge Thomas said.
The Chief Justice replied that the post had been taken. “There is no opening, Mr. Waxman,” he said.
Alain Blinder contributed reports.
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