NCAA Supreme Court Decision: In a unanimous ruling, the justices said the NCAA can’t stop student-athletes from receiving modest, education-related benefits. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
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In 2019, the NCAA made $1.18 billion. In 2020, revenue plunged to $519 million, but this of course was due to COVID. A billion-dollar enterprise isn’t exactly an amateur operation. The NCAA, however, argues that its athletes are in fact just that—amateurs. Back in the day when travel was more or less local and practice schedules were limited to three or four days a week, this may have been the case. Now, however, student-athletes wear WHOOP Bands to monitor their sleep patterns and practice 14 days a week. How is that possible? Two-a-days: lifting in the morning and practicing in the afternoon. Rigorous training schedules prepare these high-end student-athletes to play games in front of millions of people. Last year, 18.7 million viewers watched the CFP National Title Game. Think about this for a second: over 18 million people dedicated a good chunk of their day to watch 18-year-olds play football. These eyeballs fuel lucrative TV deals, fund cross-country travel, and pay important personnel, like coaches. Two years ago, college coaches were the highest-paid public employee in 40 states. To the casual fan, this model seems broken, and on Monday, the Supreme Court hinted that it might agree. In a unanimous ruling, the justices said the NCAA can’t stop student-athletes from receiving modest, education-related benefits. This doesn’t imply they will start to receive cash salaries, but it does mean they can be paid in-kind with items like computers, internships, and graduate school. It’s a small yet dramatic step in what has turned into a “game of inches.” Broadly speaking, both sides agree with the Supreme Court’s decision. We’ll outline sentiment from traditionally left and right-leaning outlets and then summarize the arguments for and against this ruling below. Let’s dive in.
On The Left
Left-leaning outlets agree with the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it’s a step in the right direction. They think more consequential rulings are in the pipeline now that the justices have cracked open the door.
“The NCAA Supreme Court ruling heralds the end of the era of unpaid student athletes” Scott Lemieux, NBC Opinion: “There is no question that the NCAA is a monopsony — a market with only one significant buyer — which raises immediate antitrust problems … [In fact,] the NCAA as currently constituted is a grotesque cartel based on greed and exploitation, egregious even by the standards of the 21st century United States … The problem with the amateurism argument, of course, is that everybody involved in college athletics except the players is allowed to make money hand over fist … the president of the NCAA is paid nearly $4 million a year, the conference commissioners make as much as $5 million, and top NCAA coaches more than $10 million … These rules single out athletes for unique burdens not imposed on any other students: A music student can perform a paying concert, a journalism student is allowed to sell a story, and a computer science student can be part of a tech start-up. So why shouldn’t a basketball player be able to sell autographs to willing fans?”
“The NCAA Looks Like a Dead Organization Walking” Will Leitch, NY Mag: “How surprising [was it] to see Brett Kavanaugh, of all people, tear the whole thing apart … Kavanaugh makes it clear that no one should expect the Court to have the NCAA’s back in any future lawsuits against its business model, lawsuits that are surely coming … This isn’t a death knell for college athletics, but it invites one to begin listening for some bell-ringing … Whenever one has argued for college athletes to be paid, those who defend the current system have responded with some variation of, ‘Okay, how would you fix it?’ This was a reasonable question. Do you pay some athletes but not all of them? … What the Supreme Court and Kavanaugh did on Monday was flip the focus: Now it’s up to the NCAA and administrators and university presidents to come up with a plan to save their sports — or else. The NCAA not only has to justify its own existence; it has to justify the entire notion of college athletics.”
“NCAA athletes scored a victory for workers’ rights” Helaine Olen, Washington Post: “The current Supreme Court isn’t exactly known for standing up for workers’ rights. But on Monday, the court — acting unanimously — did exactly that … This may be the latest sign the United States is undergoing a society-wide reset on work and what it’s worth, both financially and emotionally … Low-paying industries such as retail and hospitality are being forced to raise wages as workers turn down these jobs for better-paying gigs. White-collar workers are pushing back on bosses who want them to return to their offices full-time … The NCAA is a microcosm of this ferment … Almost all of us, whether restaurant chef, officer manager, or student basketball player, no matter how much we love and identify with our work, also want to be paid fairly and labor under better conditions. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the student workers of the NCAA came one step closer Monday to achieving that goal.”
On The Right
Right-leaning commentators agree with this very narrow ruling and seem to be in favor of other changes to college athletics as well. With that said, some slight hesitation can be detected, with one commentator describing this ruling as a slippery slope.
“It’s time to reinvent college sports” Editorial Board, Deseret News: “The US Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling … was unsurprising. The bigger question remains how to keep college sports from becoming the type of competitive big business that distorts the notion of a student-athlete and harms the academic missions of universities. Allowing full monetary compensation could have a disturbing effect on the time-honored notion of college athletics, diverting even more of an institution’s resources toward sports and away from academics … The NCAA has yet to address this unfolding situation. Congress has yet to address and solve it universally. Having policies that match principles — and the law — is critical to maintaining fairness for individuals and schools, and to maintaining some level of competitive fairness (imperfect though it is) in sports.”
“Supreme Court ruling against NCAA could be bad for student-athletes in the long run” Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “It is good that these issues are being clarified, but I cannot reiterate this enough: This is an extremely slippery slope. First off … Division I athletes are not exploited and the idea they aren’t compensated for what they do is silly. I have two children who were Division I athletes. One has two degrees, and through the connections he made while playing college football, he landed an excellent job … If that is being exploited, I want to be exploited some day, too. I estimate that the total package — everything included — for their two educations was worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000. That’s not ‘free.’ … I am all for athletes getting their fair share. I think the name, image, and likeness fight should be over and student-athletes should have won in a landslide. I am for student-athletes being compensated for their troubles … The Division I athletes are compensated handsomely already, though, and I just don’t know how much is necessary and how much more is realistic.”
“The NCAA, the Supreme Court, a Duck, and a Bicycle” Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal: “… the nation’s highest court confirmed what any reasonable person can see, that big-time intercollegiate athletics is a warped, hard-to-defend product. We all knew this, of course. The big numbers are right in our faces … Schools weren’t embarrassed by this spending—they bragged about it. As they barred their own athletes from sharing the cash, they touted coaching hires flown in by private jet, and locker rooms with theater seats and flat screen TVs … If the warped economy of big-time college sports was always there, what changed? … [According to Jeffrey Kessler, who argued on behalf of athletes in front of the Court] ‘It’s a growing public awareness, it’s communication and information … That didn’t exist 30 years ago.’ … There’s no political refuge here—as the Journal’s Louise Radnofsky wrote, if there’s one area that Democrat and Republicans agree upon, it’s irritation at the NCAA.”
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Public Opinion: According to a Seton Hall Sports Poll, “By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Americans believe that student athletes should be allowed to profit from the use of their name, image, or likeness (NIL) … Fifty-six percent of the general population favored compensation, with 25 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided.”
Support and Opposition: As Tom Wright-Piersanti outlined for the New York Times, “Those who oppose paying NCAA athletes say that the current compensation model, in which colleges cover the cost of attendance — including tuition, room and board, and some living expenses — is appropriate. They also say it preserves a line, however faint, between college sports and professional sports. But others, including former athletes, say the model uses players’ skill and labor to generate huge revenues, and offers generous compensation to everyone except those playing the game.”
Final Thoughts: As it relates to this case specifically, there is bipartisan agreement. That’s good, and something worth celebrating. With that said, money and politics infect everything they touch. This includes sports. The NCAA is often viewed as a ruthless money-making machine, and that may be a valid characterization. At the same time, there is also an indescribable benefit to playing sports for the sake of playing the sport — without the encumbrance of contracts and compensation. The sororal and fraternal bonds that are formed in the near-absence of cash last a lifetime and are arguably more valuable than some proposed forms of compensation. Holding the NCAA accountable and maintaining the beauty of college sports will prove to be a difficult task.
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