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Supreme Court charts path to greater benefits for collegiate athletes

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On June 21, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in the case of NCAA v. Alston that will fundamentally change the world of sports. In a 9-0 vote, the Court ruled that benefits given to students by universities and conferences cannot be capped as long as they are tethered to education. Many are calling the decision a “significant blow” to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), but it is undoubtedly a win for collegiate athletes.

The NCAA has been regulating college athletes as early as 1840. Towards the late 19th century, Harvard’s President was very concerned about the commercialization of intercollegiate athletics. Sports were picking up so rapidly in the country that multiple college presidents were voicing their opinion. As a result, sports switched from student control to faculty oversight. By 1905, it was apparent more rules were needed, especially for football, where there had already been over eighteen deaths. The White House called for action, and a rules committee was formed. President Roosevelt pushed for the Intercollegiate Athletic Association (IAA), and in 1910, that was renamed to the NCAA. 

At the start, the NCAA did not play a major role in governing athletes. They did, however, form national championships in various sports. By the 1920s, intercollegiate athletics was beginning to play a major role in society. By 1929, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education issued a statement: commercialism must be diminished and the opportunities for the youth must be restored. This allowed college presidents more power when it came to controlling sports at their institution. After World War II, as well as with the introduction of television, the pressure of regulating college sports intensified. Colleges expanded the sports they offered and other colleges started programs. With increased interest came increased gambling and recruiting events, and the NCAA added additional rules. 

In the 1950’s Walter Byers became Executive Director of the NCAA and made substantial efforts to further strengthen it, including pushing for intercollegiate sports to be televised. Additionally, the NCAA negotiated a television contract worth over $1 million, which further increased its value and power. Fast forward to 1971, when the NCAA was criticized for being unfair in its authority. Additionally, the NCAA created divisions that allowed schools to better reflect their competitive capacity. However, criticism grew and by 1976, the NCAA was given even more authority to be able to penalize schools directly. The U.S. House of Representatives got involved, and the NCAA adopted changes in its rules to address these criticisms. Despite these changes, the NCAA was a hot topic of debate through the 1980s. 

Now in 2021, the NCAA has faced criticism, but it has also been praised. With television in nearly every household and venues large enough to fit tens of thousands of people, the pressure the NCAA faces is like never before. 

According to the NCAA, they, as well as their member colleges and universities, award $3.5 billion in athletic scholarships every year to more than 180,000 student-athletes. They put on nearly 100 championships in 24 sports, as well as provide “almost $100 million each year to support student-athletes’ academic pursuits and assist them with the basic needs of college life.” 

However, for some, the NCAA is viewed strictly as a business, and change needed to happen to protect student athletes. This led several Division One basketball and football players to take action. The players filed a lawsuit against the NCAA. They argued that the restrictions on “non-cash education-related benefits,” violated antitrust law under the Sherman Act. The district court ruled in favor of the players, saying that the NCAA must allow for some types of academic benefits, such as computers, musical equipment, and other benefits “included in the cost of attendance calculation but nonetheless related to the pursuit of academic studies.” The district court did hold that the NCAA could still limit cash and cash-equivalent awards for academic purposes. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision. The Supreme Court then affirmed the U.S. Court of Appeal’s decision.

This ruling essentially means that there are more benefits allowed for student athletes when it comes to academic related achievement. Players in Division I men’s and women’s basketball and the Football Bowl Subdivision will be allowed to receive cash or cash-equivalent awards based on academics or graduation. Currently, the NCAA is focused on supporting predominantly student athletes rather than conferences as a whole. However, the NCAA does allocate funds to championship games and tournaments, along with some conferences that meet athletic and academic standards, as well as to schools to assist with academic programs and services. 

Now, and in addition, colleges and universities also have the ability to offer scholarships for undergraduate or graduate degrees and paid internships after athletes have exceeded their college eligibility. The ruling has prevented the NCAA from putting limits on education-related benefits, such as those for electronics, tutoring, or studying abroad. Whether or not this benefit can be expanded to even include items such as cars was not answered and was seen as an issue the Court need not belabor.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh chimed in on the ruling, stating that the NCAA is not above the law. He argued that in nearly every other business in America, the rules of the NCAA would be illegal. Focusing on the argument of “amateurism” that the NCAA highlights, Kavanaugh compares it to Hollywood, where “…movie studios cannot collude to slash benefits to camera crews to kindle a ‘spirit of amateurism”. He continues by stating that college athletes generate billions of dollars in revenue each year. These athletes could on occasion otherwise obtain fair compensation for their work in a free market. The money the athletes generate goes to everyone except them, whether it be coaches, directors, or NCAA executives. Student athletes end up with little or nothing.

The decision in NCAA v. Alston does not require schools spend more on athletes relating to academics, it just allows them to do so. This is important because when students are determining which school to attend, more incentives are able to be offered. A school that offers a higher monetary value on a benefit is more likely to attract a student that does not offer any at all.

The NCAA issued a statement pertaining to the ruling. They stated that the ruling affirms their “authority to adopt reasonable rules…articulate what are and are not truly educational benefits.” The organization says that it remains committed to working with Congress to “chart a path forward.”

The direct results of the NCAA decision have not yet been seen, and it might be months before student athletes receive the additional academic based compensation, but it is a start for these athletes all over the country. A long awaited decision, athletes now have access to more resources. Which universities and colleges decide to expand their benefits will be a story to watch.

About Sophie Cohen

Sophie Cohen, of Falmouth, is a policy intern with the Maine Policy Institute. She is a graduate of The University of Maine where she holds a degree in Political Science. In the fall, Sophie will be attending Maine Law with the hopes of becoming a criminal and family law attorney.

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