Let’s acknowledge the obvious: Certain collegiate sports are big money. Huge money. Coaches get millions. NCAA commissioners get millions. Colleges get millions. The only people not getting millions were the players, who might get their head pounded into the turf for our amusement. Maybe they would turn pro someday and get a huge pay day at the end, but most likely not. Maybe they would get hurt and, despite their talent, leave their future on the court. Maybe some, but not all, would get free education. Maybe some would even learn something.
Division 1 FBS teams can give out a maximum of 85 full-ride scholarships to athletes. Division 1 FCS programs can provide a maximum of 63 total scholarships. The 85 FBS scholarships are headcount scholarships, which means every athlete who receives a scholarship at the DI FBS level gets a full-ride scholarship. The 63 FCS scholarships are equivalency scholarships. This means a coach can divide these scholarships up, giving more athletes partial scholarships.
The NCAA saw itself as special, unique, as the non-governmental regulatory body of collegiate sports. Its mission was to be the guardian of amateur sports under the belief that student-athletes were students first. This was no small feat in a system awash with money, where college competition for recruitment of the best athletes, for national championships, for TV contracts, for alumni donation, brought in big bucks. So when the NCAA saw its ironclad control slipping away, it took its case to the Supreme Court. And lost.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that the N.C.A.A. could not bar relatively modest payments to student-athletes, a decision that underscored the growing challenges to a college sports system that generates huge sums for schools but provides little or no compensation to the players.
Sure, they got tuition, room and board, if they were one of the lucky ones, but the NCAA drew a hard line when it came to anything more.
Some will think the district court did not go far enough. By permitting colleges and universities to offer enhanced education-related benefits, its decision may encourage scholastic achievement and allow student-athletes a measure of compensation more consistent with the value they bring to their schools. Still, some will see this as a poor substitute for fuller relief. At the same time, others will think the district court went too far by undervaluing the social benefits associated with amateur athletics. For our part, though, we can only agree with the Ninth Circuit: “‘The national debate about amateurism in college sports is important. But our task as appellate judges is not to resolve it. Nor could we.”
What is meant by “enhanced education-related benefits”?
“Uncapping certain education-related benefits would preserve consumer demand for college athletics just as well as the challenged rules do,” Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.
“Such benefits are easily distinguishable from professional salaries,” he wrote, as they are linked to education and could be provided in kind rather than in cash.
Easily? Because big money doesn’t invite gaming the rules?**
The N.C.A.A. had argued that paid internships posed particular hazards because they could involve unlimited sums. But Justice Gorsuch said the association retained “considerable flexibility” that left “room to police phony internships.”
Similarly, he rejected fears that permitting in-kind benefits would allow schools to give students luxury cars to get to class. “Under the current decree,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, “the N.C.A.A. is free to forbid in-kind benefits unrelated to a student’s actual education; nothing stops it from enforcing a ‘no Lamborghini’ rule.”
Does that mean a top athlete can drive to class in his Mercedes gull-wing, but not a Countach? Squishy language opens the door to a wealth of opportunity for abuse, or is it abuse at all? Come up with a modest connection to education (hey, an athlete needs hydrotherapy, so why not a pool, with a five-acre property to place it on) and you have a plausible connection to education. Or is it time for big money college sports to go the way of the Olympics and cut the pretense that it’s about amateurism and scholars, and let players earn whatever they can?
The Supreme Court tried to open the door just a crack, even if Kavanaugh in concurrence wants to fling the door wide open.
The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels. But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.
Are college sports like “any other industry in America”? Now that the Supreme Court broke through the wall, even with its purported “modest” change, where does it go? Where should it go? What does this mean for the players, for education and for Lambo sales?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.
**At the same time, some states have crafted laws permitting college players to market their image and endorsements, an issue before the NCAA but as yet undecided.