The Supreme Court takes a swing at the NCAA, forbids scholarship limits

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Despite constant sacrifices of time and energy, collegiate athletes pursue their sport without direct compensation of any kind.

A recent Supreme Court decision is opening the door to change that.

Last week, the court unanimously confirmed that the NCAA has been placing unlawful limits on the compensation of college athletes.

This ruling forbids the NCAA from placing limits on education-related scholarships for athletes, and opens the door for further legal challenges to the NCAA’s control of collegiate athletes.

So, what changed? The court’s decision held that limits on educational compensation violated antitrust laws. This means programs across the country can now incentivize athletes above and beyond their tuition and room and board, and expand into grad school and study abroad programs.

The court took particular issue with the NCAA’s claims that educational compensation limits support the amateur nature of its players, keeping them student-athletes instead of athlete-students. Opponents of the NCAA policy contend compensating athletes educationally already designates them as professionals.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote a blistering concurrence to accompany the ruling. Thinking back to his unpaid days as a junior varsity athlete at Yale, he called the NCAA’s regulations “flatly illegal in almost any other industry.”

The explosion of revenue from televised tournaments like March Madness has been fueling an arms race in collegiate sports for better facilities and coaches. In 2020, Cal’s Justin Wilcox was the seventh-highest paid coach in the conference, making over $3 million annually, more than five times Carol Christ’s salary.

Even before the pandemic, that investment has left many programs overextended. As COVID-19 strained college budgets around the nation, sports programs were cut at an alarming rate. The industry was forced to reckon with the financial freedom that football and basketball programs — the moneymakers of the college sport industry — had at their fingertips.

Currently, Cal athletics has the most debt of any collegiate program at more than $430 million, outsizing second-ranked Illinois by more than $100 million.

Even so, Cal Athletics reported a $12.4 million budget excess in 2020. How did they manage to pull that off after almost a decade of consecutive years of eight-figure losses?

In short, Cal cut “deficit-contributing” programs. Too often, this means women’s sports, which necessitates similar cuts on the men’s side to fulfill Title IX requirements.

There seems to be a large-scale restructuring of the Cal Athletics budget already underway as the continuation of COVID-19 restrictions into the next year threatens various programs. Athletes have been pushing for compensation for years, and the stars seem to be aligning for a major change.

Numerous student-athletes have come forward claiming the most valuable years of their life were being exploited for a profit-driven enterprise. The #WeAreUnited campaign, started by UC Berkeley student-athletes, recently published a set of demands, including health and safety in the face of COVID-19, the preservation of all sport programs, the end of racial injustice in collegiate sports and a path to economic equity. While their demands have yet to be met, the conversation around equitable compensation is picking up steam.

While educational benefits are now unlimited, the real change is happening at the state level. A handful of states have already passed laws that will allow college athletes to monetize their names, images and likenesses, known as NIL rights.

For now, athletes are less than satisfied with the progress made towards equity. The pandemic ushered in a new level of class consciousness. As the world starts to reopen, the ways in which workers are compensated — essential or otherwise — are up for discussion. The value athletes provide to collegiate programs is a part of the very same fight.

Contact Luke Stiles at [email protected].