Supreme Court To NCAA: 'You Are Not Above The Law'

Supreme Court To NCAA: 'You Are Not Above The Law'

The Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA 9-0, uncapping academic benefits and teeing up an overhaul of the current system of student-athlete compensation.

Jun 22, 2021 by Andrew Spey
Supreme Court To NCAA: 'You Are Not Above The Law'
NCAA sports is one of the last bastions of amateur athletics as well as one of the most valuable sporting enterprises on the planet, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue a year.

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NCAA sports is one of the last bastions of amateur athletics as well as one of the most valuable sporting enterprises on the planet, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue a year.

If you notice a certain incongruity in that statement, you’re not alone. There are nine robed justices in Washington, DC, who all felt that certain business practices of the NCAA were due for a "course correction."

I'll do my best to make sense of the recent Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling for you and what it means for the future of collegiate athletics, but before we continue, please keep in mind that I am but a humble sports blogger and neither a student nor practitioner of the law. I did ask a lawyer for an opinion, though, so hopefully that helps. 

The NCAA ≠ Steven Seagal

No one liked that joke when I made it on Twitter but, to me, it was good, so I used it again in this subject header. Above the Law is, of course, a masterpiece of late 80's cinema starring Stevan Seagal as well as what Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh explicitly said the NCAA is not in the final sentence of his concurring opinion of NCAA vs Alston.

Neither should the NCAA nor Steven Seagal be confused with Judge Dredd, who is the law

Anyway, here's that link again to the NCAA vs Alston opinion. It's long but fairly readable and delves into some pretty fascinating corners of sports history so I recommend you all take the time to give it a once-over if you get the chance. 

The specific judgment levied by SCOTUS (unanimously, I might add) was more narrow in scope than the headlines would suggest. It merely affirmed a previous ruling by a lower court that the NCAA could not limit athletes' "education-related benefits", such as graduate or vocational school scholarships, payments for academic tutoring, or post-grad internships. However, the opinion hinted at much further reaching consequences down the road. 

We'll discuss those consequences, both immediate and out in the distance, in a bit. First, we should discuss what this case didn't cover. 

What This Case Didn't Cover

For starters, SCOTUS did not say that schools must now start paying students for their athletic labors. Indeed, amateurism, in some form or another, will likely remain part of collegiate athletics for the foreseeable future. 

You should also not expect schools and their boosters to start handing out signing bonuses to recruits because of the ruling. The concept of a student-athlete was left intact and indeed the concept is integral to the argument used to affirm the lower court's original ruling. 

Additionally, the ruling does not touch on a different but not unrelated topic of a student-athlete's ability to profit off their 'name, image and likeness (NIL). That issue is developing in parallel to that of the broader topic of student-athlete compensation. Importantly, but not due to the recent ruling, we may see, in certain states, college students signing endorsement deals as early as July 1st. 

That's correct, in less than two weeks, some of your favorite college wrestlers could be hawking nutritional supplements, among other things. 

All right, so NIL was not discussed, and we can pump the brakes on the collapse of the student-athlete model and the professionalization of college sports.

So why was this case such a big deal? Good question, I will tell you.

Why This Case Is Such A Big Deal

Because the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the NCAA's longstanding arguments for why they should be able to do things like limit 'academic rewards' was wrong. And it that it was bad. 

SCOTUS said the NCAA was wrong and bad. That is a big deal. 

Since the NCAA started as a thing back in 1906, it has positioned itself as a unique organization that promoted sports only because it fit within its constituent institutions' broader educational missions. And because these missions could not be corrupted by the pecuniary motives of professional sports, the NCAA had a duty to maintain amateurism. And that the pursuit of these ideals allowed them to operate outside the legal bounds under which other sports abided. And that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act did not apply to them. 

SCOTUS laughed at these claims. Truth be told, one could say they guffawed at them. 

Lofty ideals, the Supreme Court said, were no excuse for breaking the law.

The Supreme Court said this by entertainingly pointing out that pecuniary concerns were at the heart of collegiate athletics from the very beginning. The examples given to support this notion are both enlightening and amusing. 

In 1905, a Yale football player was recruited with the promise of a trip to Cuba and a job as a cigarette agent for the American Tobacco Company. In the 1940s, it was joked that a running back at the University of Washington had taken a pay cut when he turned pro. 

And of course, in the present day, It does not take much sleuthing to uncover the astronomical sums being paid to the various teams and conferences for the media rights to their competitions. 

For instance, I just typed "ESPN SEC football contact" into google and found out that the Southeastern Conference is getting $3 billion from the Worldwide Leader. Not bad!

But to be fair to the NCAA, there's a reason they've operated this way for so long. Wait, that should be the start of a new section.

To Be Fair To The NCAA, There's A Reason They've Operated This Way For So Long

Neither the court of law nor the court of public opinion has, until recently, told the NCAA they disapprove of the NCAA's modus operandi. 

Public opinion polls have for years shown that a majority believe college scholarships are sufficient compensation for student-athletes. But those opinions are changing, and as often is the case, the opinion of the court has also moved in tandem with the people (cue Mayor Quimby).

Back in 1984, the Supreme Court ruled, just as they have now, that the NCAA violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The big difference with the ruling back in 1984 in NCAA vs Board of Regents, was that Justice John Paul Steven's opinion included the phrase, "In order to preserve the character and quality of the ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid."

So while the NCAA lost their case regarding the control of television rights (or something like that. When time permits I'll do more research on that one), they gained some very powerful armor in their fight to defend themselves from the proponents of the pay-for-play model, aka the antithesis of the current student-athlete system. 

That defense, however, has been slowly eroding over the years, and now appears ready to crumble to dust.

Don't Pop The Pay-For-Play Champagne Just Yet

I reached out to Brooklyn-based attorney Charles Star for his take and he was gracious to share his learned opinion on the matter. And while Star was pleasantly surprised with both the unanimous verdict and with how strongly the court favored the side of the athletes (see the tweet thread below), he cautioned about expecting an immediate about-face from the NCAA.

While the court issued a resounding rebuke to the NCAA's legal strategies, there still isn't much incentive for the NCAA to concede on matters that weren't decided by the court, specifically the NCAA mandate forbidding payment to athletes for competitions. 

And though the NCAA’s well-compensated counsel will be forced to devise new strategies to continue on their current path -- NIL and uncapped academic rewards notwithstanding -- the business model will likely trudge along, more or less as it did, while it fends off, with varying degrees of success and failure, the inevitable onslaught of legal challenges that are sure enough on their way. 

Star predicted: 

The Supreme Court isn’t going to be in a rush to get involved again. They’d much rather let Congress and the lower courts work out the kinks before deciding anything about direct compensation to athletes.

The NCAA is, among many varied roles, chiefly an umbrella to shield their constituent universities and colleges from liability. They would have little to gain (nebulous amounts of goodwill?) and much to lose (billions of dollars!) in a risky, self-directed overhaul of the current system. Better to wait until their hand is forced by the slow-turning gears of US tort law.

Which is not to say that the student-athletes and their cadre of lawyers were remiss in pulling punches. “The athletes lost the pay-for-play issue in the lower court and chose, tactically, to only try and preserve the win on education-related benefits rather than risk losing it all,” said Star. 

It was their proverbial 'first bite at the apple' with SCOTUS, which they won, and they couldn't have asked for a better opinion from which to tee off during their next appearance in court, especially in light of Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion which indicated that at least he strongly supports some form of pay-for-play.

What Does All Of This Mean For Wrestling?

About time this wrestling blog got around to discussing the wrestling-specific ramifications of this topic. 

Though it's important to now recognize that, as with most matters collegiate and athletic, football and men's basketball are the NCAA's animating spirits. And really, it's football driving the bus, with men's basketball riding shotgun. 

So as per the usual, wrestling and every other sport besides the Big Two will be left with little to do but sit back and wait for any fallout from the NCAA's next battle over anti-trust law. The lawsuits may acknowledge wrestling's existence but the billable hours will be paid for by the interests of football and basketball. 

In the meantime, uncapped academic rewards have now become another tool at the disposal of wrestling coaches in their recruiting efforts. The well-funded programs with the largest alumni base, most generous donors, and most prestigious brands, will have the upper hand, as they do now in nearly everything else.

But that doesn't mean there won't be opportunities for savvy operators. The more levers a college coach has to pull, the greater the odds that he will be able to figure out a way to 'Moneyball' his competition. Uncapped academic rewards are one more such lever. 

What will make a far greater impact on the collegiate wrestling community is NIL, but that is a discussion for later, as it's late, and I told the team I'd have this article ready for Tuesday morning, and as much as I want to continue blogging, I have a responsibility to my colleagues. 

The blog about NIL will have to wait for another time. Thankfully there's always time for more blogs.