The movement to pay college athletes suffered a blow Wednesday, as a federal court of appeals held the NCAA currently violates antitrust law but threw out a lower court’s decision allowing players to be given cash payments of up to $5,000 a year.
“The NCAA is not above the antitrust laws, and courts cannot and must not shy away from requiring the NCAA to play by the Sherman Act’s rules,” the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals says. “In this case, the NCAA’s rules have been more restrictive than necessary to maintain its tradition of amateurism in support of the college sports market.”
Existing NCAA rules have strictly limited college athletic scholarships by only allowing them to cover tuition, room, board, books, and other fees. Critics say this fails to encapsulate the full cost of attending university, leaving many poorer players in a lurch. Now, the court says schools must be allowed to cover these expenses as well, which are generally believed to be a few thousand dollars a year.
But the court stopped there, essentially saying that the NCAA had to let schools offer slightly more generous scholarships. In the process, it through out an arrangement created last year by a district court judge. That judge had determined that in addition to full-tuition scholarships athletes in certain sports could be paid up to $5,000 a year in deferred cash payments, which would be paid out in full once they left school. Instead, the court said schools simply had to be allowed to cover the full cost of attendance.
The court said that giving players cash payments totally unrelated to the cost of attending college would radically alter the nature of college sports and essentially destroy amateurism forever.
“The difference between offering student-athletes education-related compensation and offering them cash sums untethered to educational expenses is not minor; it is a quantum leap,” the majority opinion by Judge Jay Bybee says. “At that point the NCAA will have surrendered its amateurism principles entirely and transitioned from its ‘particular brand of football’ to minor league status.”
Judge Sidney Thomas dissented in part from the majority ruling, saying the court should have preserved the $5,000 payments.
The class-action lawsuit at the heart of the case was brought in 2009 by former college basketball player Ed O’Bannon, who claims that former college players should be allowed compensation for the use of their names and images after they leave school. Wednesday’s ruling is a blow to that goal, suggesting courts are not ready to give to players the legal right to profit off of jersey sales and other merchandising.
The NCAA claims unpaid players are necessary for preserving the spirit of amateurism in college sports. Critics, though, say that sports like football and men’s basketball have become extremely lucrative, and that it is exploitative for schools to make millions of dollars while giving almost none of the profits to athletes who put their bodies on the line.
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