Late last month, the NCAA suffered another blow to its amateurism model. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling in Alston v. NCAA that the NCAA's restriction on education-related benefits for college athletes violated federal antitrust law. During the trial in 2018, college athletes forced the NCAA to defend its farce of amateurism.
What is Amateurism?
The NCAA's amateurism rules preclude college athletes from receiving any pay for their athletic skills. The amateurism rules are the outgrowth of the idea that athletes should only play for the love of the game. It is this concept that the NCAA implores to carry out its mission. The NCAA's mission is to "maintain intercollegiate athletics as an integral part of the student body and, by doing so, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports". The NCAA uses this concept to further its mission. It does this by ensuring that college athletes do not receive any payment that is not approved by the NCAA.
Somehow the NCAA believes that making sure college athletes do not receive any unapproved payment is sufficient to keep college sports separate from professional sports. The NCAA conveniently ignores other facets of college sports that are very akin to professional sports. Those facets include coaches' million-dollar salaries, the billion-dollar television broadcasting deals, and the multi-million-dollar sports facilities on various college campuses. To the NCAA, the only thing that would professionalize college sports is paying the actual people who make all of the revenue possible. Fortunately, college athletes have begun to have enough of the system that intentionally leaves them out of the revenue sharing. College athletes challenged the system during the Alston v NCAA trial where they chiseled away at the sham of amateurism.
Alston v. NCAA District Court Trial
During the trial, college athletes challenged the NCAA's amateurism rules by arguing that the NCAA has violated federal antitrust law. An antitrust law violation occurs when an organization conspires to place a restraint on trade in a free market. The plaintiffs, in this case, argued that the NCAA did just that through their amateurism rules. Specifically, they argued that the NCAA's rules limiting college athletes to cost-of-attendance scholarships violates federal antitrust law. Additionally, the college athletes argued that there were other less restrictive ways that the NCAA could meet its goal.
The NCAA conceded that the rules in question did in fact violate federal antitrust law. However, the NCAA contended that their rules served two procompetitive purposes. Specifically, the NCAA argued that their rules were necessary to retain consumer interest in college sports. The NCAA contended college athletes being unpaid is what keeps college sports separate from professional sports. They argued that it is this separation that drives consumer interest. Additionally, the NCAA argued that its amateurism rules were necessary to keep college athletes integrated into the greater college campus community.
Ultimately, the District Court ruled that the NCAA was violating federal antitrust law with its blanket prohibition on payments beyond a cost-of-attendance scholarship. The court ruled that the NCAA could serve their procompetitive purposes using a less restrictive means. Accordingly, the court ruled that the NCAA could no longer restrict benefits given to college athletes that are tethered to education. Such benefits include things like computers and musical instruments. These types of benefits help further college athletes' pursuit of their education.
The NCAA Can Still Restrict Non-Education Related Benefits
However, the NCAA may still restrict payments above a cost-of- scholarship that is not tethered to education. Therefore, the NCAA is still able to serve its procompetitive purpose of keeping college sports separate from professionals by ensuring college athletes do not receive any non-education related benefit.
The Appeals Court affirmed the District Courts Decision
While the NCAA did not completely lose the District Court case, they still appealed. On appeal, the court considered whether the District Court erred in their ruling. However, the appeals court affirmed the lower court's decision. The court reasoned that the NCAA could keep college sports separate from professional sports while allowing college athletes to receive unrestricted education-related benefits. The court further reasoned that it would not adversely affect consumer interest in college sports. When the NCAA allowed college athletes to receive cost-of-attendance scholarships, that did not adversely affect consumer interest in college sports, as the NCAA originally said it would. As such, the court affirmed that allowing the NCAA to limit non-education related benefits while requiring the allowance of educational benefits was a reasonable balance that would allow the NCAA to further its mission.