A Full Court Press: The Supreme Court Considers Expanded Benefits For Student Athletes : The NPR Politics Podcast This week the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether or not the NCAA is operating a conspiracy to fix prices in the athletic labor market by not paying its student athletes. The NCAA, however, argues that paying students would threaten the "amateur" status of the game.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

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A Full Court Press: The Supreme Court Considers Expanded Benefits For Student Athletes

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A Full Court Press: The Supreme Court Considers Expanded Benefits For Student Athletes

A Full Court Press: The Supreme Court Considers Expanded Benefits For Student Athletes

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CLAY: Hey. This is Clay (ph). I'm currently packing up my apartment in Boston ahead of a 33-hour drive to New Mexico with my girlfriend and a two-pound rabbit named Clover (ph). This podcast was recorded at...


2:08 p.m. on Thursday, April 1.

CLAY: By the time you hear this, things may have changed, and hopefully Clover will be hopping around our new apartment in Albuquerque. All right. Enjoy the show.


DAVIS: A 33-hour road trip actually sounds pretty fun to me at this point.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: (Laughter) I'm not sure about the bunny rabbit. I mean...

DAVIS: Right. I could leave the rabbit behind. But...

MONTANARO: Do you take it on walks? I don't know how that works.

DAVIS: Let's focus on the open road.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

DAVIS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: I'm Nina Totenberg, and I cover the Supreme Court.

DAVIS: And today we're going to talk about something that is incredibly rare for us on the POLITICS PODCAST. We're talking about sports. Yesterday, in a very different kind of March Madness - see what I did there?

MONTANARO: (Laughter) I like it. I'm here for it, Sue.

DAVIS: (Laughter) The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could have major consequences for college athletics. This case hinges on whether the body that governs college sports, which is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, commonly known as the NCAA, is violating antitrust law by limiting the compensation for student athletes.

Nina is going to walk us through the particulars of this case, but, Domenico, before we get there, you know, this has been a huge debate for a really long time about whether college athletes should have more compensation than just, you know, going - getting to go to the college that they attend.

MONTANARO: Absolutely. I mean, you know, this has been something for at least two or three decades where people have been talking about college athletes potentially needing some sort of form of compensation beyond, you know, their college scholarship because of how much time they put into it, and mostly because of how much money the college tournaments have started to take on because of those TV contracts. We're talking about multimillion dollar deals. When it comes to college football, which, by the way, is not the NCAA, we're talking about billions of dollars that they've signed contracts with ESPN.

So this is something that has been growing for a long time. The NCAA has tried to stem some of the backlash to this by opening things up a little bit for compensation to athletes but still nowhere near what athletes would want.

DAVIS: So, Nina, what is this case before the court right now?

TOTENBERG: Well, the players contend that the NCAA is operating a system that's a classic restraint of competition in violation of the nation's antitrust laws. In essence, they're saying, you're setting up a system in which we play for the schools, and the schools have fixed the price of the labor market. And the price of the labor market is an education, but we think it ought to be more, and you've conspired to fix what the - essentially the payments are. The NCAA maintains that the antitrust law allows it to impose certain limits on athlete compensation in order to preserve what the NCAA contends is the essence of college sports and the whole reason of their popularity, namely amateurism, that these are student athletes who are not paid.

And that is ultimately the case that's before the Supreme Court because the NCAA appealed a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that said you have to expand what you consider to be educational benefits. So it has to include graduate education if these folks want. It has to include laptop computers. It has to include paid internships if they want to have them, that kind of thing.

DAVIS: This argument that amateur status is key to the NCAA was brought up a lot in the court yesterday, but the justices didn't really seem to be buying this argument.

TOTENBERG: Well, it's complicated, as all things are in front of the Supreme Court. But...

DAVIS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: (Laughter) But certainly they were, shall we say, skeptical or dubious about some of these claims. Elena Kagan, for example, had this to say about the claims that amateur status is the heartthrob of college sports and the reason that people are so interested and compelled by them.


ELENA KAGAN: There's another way to think about what's going on here, and that's that schools that are naturally competitors as to athletes have all gotten together in an organization, an organization that has undisputed market power, and they use that power to fix athletic salaries at extremely low levels, far lower than what the market would set if it were allowed to operate.

TOTENBERG: Justice Clarence Thomas had this to say.


CLARENCE THOMAS: Is there a similar focus on the compensation to coaches to maintain that distinction between amateur coaches - coaches in the amateur ranks as opposed to coaches in the pro ranks?

DAVIS: I thought that the Thomas point was so interesting because, you know, college coaches can make a ton of money, and they don't necessarily differentiate between amateur-level pay and the professional levels that coaches make in professional sports. And that did seem to kind of weaken this argument.

TOTENBERG: In fact, the answer to that question from the lawyer representing the NCAA was, well, we used to limit the coach's pay, but they went to court, and they won.


DAVIS: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk about what this case could mean for the divide between college and professional sports.

And we're back. And, Nina, even though many of the justices voiced some skepticism yesterday about the NCAA's arguments about how important amateurism is, they also raised some questions about what allowing education-related compensation could mean for college sports overall, right?

TOTENBERG: They certainly did. I'm interpreting here, but, you know, they were very hostile to the NCAA's position on the one hand, and on the other, I'm not quite sure that they're quite sure about how to fix it. They're worried about, whatever they do, will it change this, the whole idea of amateur sports. And here, for example, is Justice Sonia Sotomayor.


SONIA SOTOMAYOR: How do we know that we're not just destroying the game as it exists? Meaning, we're being told by Mr. Waxman that all of these educational-related payments can become extravagant and, as a result, be viewed by the public as pay-for-play.

DAVIS: That's interesting.

TOTENBERG: Justice Breyer even said, look; this is a thing that's brought joy to millions of people; we don't want to screw it up.

MONTANARO: It's kind of hard to believe that it would be screwed up, though, (laughter) I mean, just by...

TOTENBERG: It is very hard to believe.

MONTANARO: ...By happening to pay athletes. You know, this is not the Olympics. You know, a lot of people cried foul about the Olympics because there were a lot of professional athletes, you know, in the 1980s and early '90s who started - who were playing for other countries, who countries were showing to be - you know, claiming to be amateurs but knew that they were professionals. So the United States came in with their basketball team, put all the pros in in 1992, forming that Dream Team, really opened up the avenue for that particular part of the Olympics to be completely different than what they looked like back then, which were just college kids playing in - you know, against the world's best.

This is still going to be, for the most part, 18-to-22-year-old kids, you know, who are playing and, by the way, not graduating at very high rates, and that's one of the arguments, of course, that they made.

DAVIS: Yeah. That's a good point.

TOTENBERG: A lot of these kids, if they're really fabulous and heading to the pros ultimately, they play for a year until they've reached an age when the - when they can qualify in the pros, and they go to the pros.

MONTANARO: And you better believe that the NCAA wants those kids who go one-and-done to play in that - and to play in March Madness because they're usually the best athletes that are showcased every year, and without them, you don't have the kind of exciting game that you do have.

DAVIS: Domenico, I do think, though, that when we talk about this, to me, there is a racial element...


DAVIS: ...Maybe even, like, a civil rights element to this because some student athletes are actually allowed to receive some compensation, but I think specifically basketball players, which predominantly are Black athletes, are not. And that's something you hear a lot about in this compensation debate.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And I think we have to keep, you know, football sort of separate. Even though football makes a lot of money, football is in a different entity with the college football playoff that manages itself and is not part of the NCAA, interestingly. But look; the majority of the basketball players in college athletics are not white. Something like 56%, according to one study in 2018, showed that they were African American. So you've got a majority-Black sport where, you know, you have a lot of people, advocates of these kids, saying, you know, you have other sports, predominantly white sports - like tennis, golf - where kids are allowed to take a degree of winnings from junior tournaments, but these athletes, these Black kids, not allowed to do so.

TOTENBERG: And, you know, when I was prepping for this story, I was really interested that most of the folks that I called said that these schools that participate, for example, in March Madness and benefit from it use some of that money to subsidize other sports. And they call them the country club sports...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: ...That are predominantly white, like golf and tennis.

MONTANARO: Well, I'll tell you this. There are 90 NCAA sports championships; only five sports produce more revenue than it costs to host those tournaments (laughter). And that's basketball, men's ice hockey, men's lacrosse, wrestling and baseball. The rest of them are subsidized by football and basketball.

DAVIS: It's interesting to me because the NCAA is facing this confrontation in the court, but they also seem to have fewer and fewer allies on Capitol Hill. There's a lot of legislation that's been introduced - mostly by Democrats, but honestly, some has Republican support as well - that would allow players to seek more compensation, you know, outside the bounds of the NCAA, like allowing their image to be used on things that they can profit off of. I mean, there does seem to be a growing level of sympathy in our politics for this idea that these student athletes should be able to have higher levels of compensation, and that does not seem like a very good place for the NCAA to be in when it comes to where they are with Washington.

TOTENBERG: In fact, Sue, the majority of states have passed legislation like that, to allow athletes to profit from their own images and their presence on social network, and the first of those goes into effect in July, and that's in Florida.

DAVIS: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: If the NCAA loses in the Supreme Court - and, of course, depending on how it were to lose - it could always go to Congress, and that's sort of the argument of the players. Look; if you want to change the system, this is a policy debate. Go to the Congress. Of course, they probably know that Congress won't give them everything they want to get.

DAVIS: So, Nina, what's the expectation for when the court is going to rule in this case?

TOTENBERG: Well, I would assume it's going to be towards the end of the term in June some - you know, towards the end of June even because, after all, we just had the arguments, and it takes, typically, in a hard case - and this is not an easy case - to figure out how they're going to approach it and what the majority is going to be and what they can agree on, I - it's going to take a few months. So I would expect the end of June.

DAVIS: Do your Nina tea leaves give you a sense of which way you think the court is leaning? Or you think this is a jump ball?

MONTANARO: Yeah, and I guess Sue is asking, what's your court sense?


TOTENBERG: Boo, boo.


TOTENBERG: You know, I saw that several of my colleagues thought that the NCAA was doomed, but I thought it was closer than that 'cause I think they are worried about blowing up the sport. They don't want to do that. And they're trying to figure out how to first do no harm, but that includes no harm to the athletes.

DAVIS: All right. Well, I think that's a wrap for today. We'll be back tomorrow with our weekly roundup.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

TOTENBERG: I'm Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent, and I cover the Supreme Court.

DAVIS: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


MONTANARO: Hey. Remember to stay in your lanes, guys.


MONTANARO: Take it to the house. Good job.

TOTENBERG: Nobody said it was a full-court press.


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