The Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, announced that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) current restrictions on institution-provided non-cash education benefits for student-athletes is a violation of antitrust laws. The Court declined to address many of the larger questions potentially at issue in the case—namely the NCAA’s ability to issue overarching regulations on athletic scholarships and student-athlete compensation generally.
The decision in National Collegiate Athletic Association vs. Alston upholds a federal district court ruling from 2019, which was also upheld last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and mandates that the NCAA’s current limits on the “non-cash education-related benefits” colleges and universities may provide to student-athletes, such as scholarships for study abroad programs or scholarships that exceed listed cost of attendance, are impermissible. The Court’s decision does not touch on the issue of third-party compensation for student-athletes for use of their name, image, and likeness, or on the NCAA’s rulemaking efforts on this issue.
The ruling acknowledges that some may criticize the limited scope of its decision, stating, “The national debate about amateurism in college sports is important. But our task as appellate judges is not to resolve it. Nor could we. Our task is simply to review the district court judgment through the appropriate lens of antitrust law.” However, the Court did reject many of the NCAA’s arguments that antitrust scrutiny was not appropriate in this case because the association and its institutional members are not “commercial enterprises” by stating that “[t]o the extent [the NCAA] means to propose a sort of judicially ordained immunity from the terms of the Sherman Act for its restraints of trade -- that we should overlook its restrictions because they happen to fall at the intersection of higher education, sports, and money -- we cannot agree.”
While the Supreme Court did not rule on student-athlete compensation, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are still eager to address the issue. In praising the Court’s decision, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who led introduction of a College Athlete Bill of Rights in Congress, stated, “This ruling points out grave deficiencies in the current state of college sports, but leaves several critical issues to be addressed. Congress must pass legislation that goes beyond compensation and gives athletes full rights to their Name, Image, and Likeness…Anything less than comprehensive reform isn't putting the needs of the athletes first.”
For its part, the NCAA has responded to the decision mostly positively, with President Mark Emmert saying, “Even though the decision does not directly address name, image and likeness, the NCAA remains committed to supporting NIL benefits for student-athletes…Additionally, we remain committed to working with Congress to chart a path forward, which is a point the Supreme Court expressly stated in its ruling.”