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US Supreme Court to decide if college athletes must be paid

In 2014, a group of college athletes filed a class action against the National Collegiate Athletic Association and other major athletic conferences. They argued that the NCAA’s eligibility and compensation restrictions, meant to keep college sports amateur, are actually a violation of federal antitrust laws because they restrain the athletes from receiving fair-market compensation.

The case was heard by a federal district court in California, which ruled that the NCAA and the other conferences could continue to restrict some types of compensation, such as direct cash salaries, but not education-related benefits like paid post-graduate internships and free laptops. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments about whether the NCAA and the other conferences can continue to deny athletes significant compensation. Underlying this issue is the fact that the conferences make a lot of money from the athletes’ labor and images.

A shocking imbalance in who gets paid for college sports

As Justice Clarence Thomas noted, college coaches’ compensation has “ballooned” despite the NCAA’s claims of amateurism. For example, in 2017, according to a “friend of the court” brief, college football or basketball coaches were the top-earning state employees in 39 states.

Justice Samuel Alito characterized the situation as one where big programs make billions of dollars while athletes are prevented from earning even subsistence wages. Meanwhile, the hours they put in for practice and training appear to negatively impact their studies, resulting in “shockingly low” graduation rates. Alito said the athletes are “recruited, they’re used up, and then they’re cast aside.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh flat-out stated that federal antitrust laws “should not be a cover for exploitation of the student-athletes.”

He went on to say that the schools seemed to be conspiring with each other “to pay no salaries to the workers who are making the schools billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing.”

Paying athletes might be worse, lawyer says

The lawyer for the NCAA argued that amateur college sports were created over 115 years ago in an effort “to restore integrity and the social value of college athletics.” He argued that rules intended to preserve amateurism deserve special deference.

He also argued that, if athletes were paid, they would be expected to play more often, not less, and that could mean even lower graduation rates. Ultimately, he argued that paying the athletes would so change the character of the contest that consumers would no longer be interested.

Do you think college athletes should be paid for their time and work? What protections should they have?

Leigh Law Group handles education law cases, including in the higher education sphere.