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College football's bowl season is about to get serious. Today, the playoff starts for the country's top four teams. The stakes are high, and the money plentiful, but none of it goes to the players. That prompts a familiar debate over paying college athletes - a debate that may have reached a tipping point. A federal judge will soon rule on a lawsuit that could radically change the notion of amateur college sports. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: It's called the NCAA Athletic Grant-In-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation. That's a whopper of a title, but the plaintiffs are asserting something pretty simple. The traditional system limiting athletes' compensation to scholarships, like tuition, room, board, books - that violates antitrust law.
The class-action suit by a bunch of former and current college athletes says, even though athletes can generate a ton of money for their schools, there's still a cap on how much they can be paid, and that's an unreasonable restraint of trade. A non-jury trial on the case happened recently. A judge is due to rule, and the outcome could be really big.
GABE FELDMAN: This could be a watershed moment for college sports.
GOLDMAN: Gabe Feldman directs the Sports Law Program at Tulane University.
FELDMAN: This could change the way that money is distributed and could change the way that fans view the sports.
GOLDMAN: Ramogi Huma is the executive director of the National College Players Association.
RAMOGI HUMA: I think this is the moment that we've been waiting for.
GOLDMAN: Huma has been waiting a long time. His activism started in 1995 when he was a freshman on the UCLA football team. A few years ago, he was involved in the effort by Northwestern University football players to unionize. And he consulted on the new lawsuit. It calls for college conferences to include athletes in the free market that drives everything else on campuses.
HUMA: The schools within those conferences hire coaches at different pay rates, some of them have bigger recruiting budgets than others, and facilities. But the player has been excluded from this whole mechanism, so this would allow players to finally get some economic justice.
GOLDMAN: Huma says public support for paying college athletes is growing, fueled, in part, by support from professional athletes. A recent HBO documentary "Student Athlete" was co-produced by LeBron James, who never played college sports.
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JOHN SHOOP: These coaches are making millions coaching players whose families live below the poverty line. They're propelling a billion-dollar industry, getting a sweatsuit for it.
GOLDMAN: But public attitudes about paying players appear to be more nuanced. Take the case of former college basketball player Ed O'Bannon. He challenged the NCAA on antitrust grounds, saying it was illegal not to pay athletes for the public use of their names and images. In 2014 and 2015, judges sided with O'Bannon.
Michael McCann is an associate dean at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He says, while there was broad, public support for O'Bannon, that may not be the case with this lawsuit.
MICHAEL MCCANN: Whether college athletes should receive a paycheck for their labor, I think, is a much more controversial, divided question.
GOLDMAN: Because many still agree that paying athletes would make college sports less popular and alter what the NCAA calls a good balance between academics and athletics. What matters now is what judges think.
It's expected U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken will rule in the coming weeks. But even a win by the plaintiffs might not lead to major changes. Judges have been reluctant so far to blow up a popular and profitable system, one that athlete plaintiffs say doesn't pay them what they're worth.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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