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What Does the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Amateurism Mean for the NCAA and College Athletes?

The Supreme Court building on capitol hill in Washington, DC at sunset in November, 2020
Kevin Knight

In a unanimous 9-0 decision handed down mid-Monday morning, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled against the NCAA’s limits on education-related perks for college athletes in the case National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston et al. The decision upheld a lower court’s decision striking down education-related restrictions the NCAA had in place for student-athletes.

Judge Claudia Ann Wilken of the US District Court for the Northern District of California had previously narrowly ruled against the NCAA on the same grounds SCOTUS upheld today. Judge Wilken agreed with the NCAA about direct compensation for student-athletes. However, she struck down provisions prohibiting enhanced education benefits, ruling they were fair game for member schools to provide even though the NCAA’s argument was such benefits would set up a bidding war between universities and athletic conferences for top athletes. The US Ninth Circuit Court upheld the District Court ruling last May.

Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion for SCOTUS, while Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion. The case originated as a class action lawsuit against the NCAA filed by former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston and former University of California center Justine Hartman, representing other former men’s and women’s student-athletes.

Justice Gorsuch wrote that Judge Wilkin’s original decision “stands on firm ground — an exhaustive factual record, a thoughtful legal analysis consistent with established antitrust principles, and a healthy dose of judicial humility.”

The decision handed down does not allow for outright compensation to student-athletes, or toss out the “amateur” model, either. However, it does allow college and universities to offer even greater financial and other benefits that are directly tied to education moving forward. This means a school could try to find a competitive advantage in recruiting student-athletes with promises such as scholarships for graduate or vocational schools, graduate internships, new laptops or other computer equipment related to education, study-abroad programs, and even potentially small cash awards for student-athletes who do well in the classroom.

The ruling also has no impact on the ongoing Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) debate going on in the United State Congress, numerous state capitals across the country, and in the NCAA and member institutions. The NCAA is scheduled to meet later this week to work on NIL reforms after twice punting on the issue so far this year and with a number of states set to have NIL laws go into effect on July 1 next week.

However, for now the final paragraph of Gorsuch’s opinion seems a fitting note to finish with in terms of the scope of the ruling and purview SCOTUS had in its authority for review of the case (emphasis added):

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. Our task is simply to review the district court judgment through the appropriate lens of antitrust law.’” 958 F. 3d, at 1265. That review persuades us the district court acted within the law’s bounds.

The judgement is affirmed.


What do you think of the SCOTUS ruling?

This poll is closed

  • 50%
    It was correctly ruled in its more narrow focus
    (46 votes)
  • 7%
    I wanted to see the amateur model end
    (7 votes)
  • 41%
    I’m nervous the decision opened the floodgates on future recruiting violations
    (38 votes)
91 votes total Vote Now