The Supreme Court Sides With NCAA Athletes In A Narrow Ruling The court ruled that NCAA rules are not reasonably necessary to distinguish between college and professional sports. Still, the ruling could be potentially transformative.


The Supreme Court Sides With NCAA Athletes In A Narrow Ruling

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The Supreme Court has sided with student athletes in a decision with big repercussions for college sports. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the NCAA must lift restrictions it's got on education-related benefits to student-athletes because those restrictions violate federal antitrust laws. This was a relatively narrow question for the court to consider, but the language of the decision has implications far beyond that and may well transform college athletics as we know it today.

Joining us now, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start with the issue that really is the grounding for this decision, these restrictions that the NCAA has on student-athletes. Explain that.

TOTENBERG: So at the moment, the NCAA rules limit educational benefits for college players as part of their scholarships. The athletes challenge that, maintaining that the NCAA has been operating a system that's a classic restraint of competition - in short, that it violated the nation's anti-trust laws. The NCAA appealed and said that the trial court in this case went too far by expanding educational benefits for athletes to include things like paid internships and musical instruments. As I said, both sides appealed. And today the Supreme Court said the lower court, like Goldilocks, got it just right.

MARTIN: Right. So we should back up. Yes, the Supreme Court has upheld a lower-court decision. So what does all this mean in practical terms for the players, for the NCAA, for fans?

TOTENBERG: Well, it could be, as you said, transformative to college athletics. That's what the CEO of the independent Knight Commission on Athletic Education (ph), Amy Perko, told me some weeks ago. It could mean that the individual conferences each establish their own limits on educational compensation. And that could mean that there would be competition among the conferences. So the athlete who doesn't like the benefits in one conference that are offered might sign up with a school in a different conference. And just to give you some examples, a conference could include academic scholarships, graduate scholarships to graduate school. They might eliminate caps on disability insurance so that injured athletes are guaranteed income in the future if they suffer a career-ending injury before being able to play professionally. There are wide swath of things that are not available now that could conceivably be in the future.

MARTIN: I understand Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a concurring opinion. He said he would have gone even further, actually, than the court's decision in the end. What did he say?

TOTENBERG: Well, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the unanimous court, recounting, among other things, all the statistics about how the NCAA and its leaders, as well as coaches and athletic directors, have gotten rich on this system. Kavanaugh would have gone further. But it gives you an idea of the minimum high regard that the whole court has for the NCAA. Here's what he - what Kavanaugh said in his opinion. (Reading) The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student-athletes in innocuous labels. But the labels cannot disguise the reality. The NCAA's business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America. All the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks' wages on the theory that customers prefer to eat food from low-paid cooks. Law firms cannot conspire to cabin lawyers' salaries. And on and on and on - he said, price fixing labor is price fixing labor, and price fixing labor is ordinarily a textbook antitrust problem because it extinguishes the free market in which individuals can otherwise obtain fair compensation for their work.

MARTIN: This is some of what the NCAA's lawyers had argued, that by giving student-athletes any kind of these benefits, that it would diminish their position as amateurs, and somehow that would affect the fans and their enthusiasm...


MARTIN: ...Which the court has now said is untrue.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, we appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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