College athletes v. NCAA on players’ compensation: Which side might the Supreme Court favor?

Statues of the “Wild Bunch” football players are displayed at USC. In a class action lawsuit filed in California, former college football and basketball players argued the NCAA artificially limits their compensation and violates federal antitrust laws by price-fixing the labor market. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Over the weekend, the Stanford women’s basketball team won its first national championship since 1992. In men’s basketball, UCLA’s run to the Final Four came to an agonizing end.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court last week heard a case about the NCAA and compensation for student athletes.

The plaintiffs were former college football and basketball players who said the NCAA artificially limits their compensation, and they would get more if the market were truly open. They said the NCAA was violating federal antitrust laws by price-fixing the labor market.

The NCAA has long argued that collegiate athletes are amateurs and shouldn’t be compensated beyond the scholarship they receive.

But Justice Clarence Thomas questioned that premise, implying that there’s little commitment to the idea of “amateurism” when it comes to compensation for college coaches, whose salaries often rival or even dwarf their professional counterparts.

During oral arguments, Justice Stephen Breyer said college sports was different than any other business or product that might fall under the purview of antitrust law: "This is an effort to bring into the world something that's brought joy and all kinds of things to millions and millions of people, and it's only partly economic, okay? So I worry a lot about judges getting into the business of deciding how amateur sports should be run.”

Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson says she expects the Justices to side with the college athletes.

“It might not be a huge win. You might see some fairly deferential standard, but something that says to the NCAA, ‘You were founded in 1905, we need to update our bylaws and rules. Yes we will give you some discretion, particularly when it comes to compensation unrelated to education, but let’s update to really understand what’s happening in the real world.’ This is a huge business for everybody except the college athletes.”

Credits

Guest:
Jessica Levinson - Professor, LMU's Loyola Law School in Los Angeles - @LevinsonJessica

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser