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Supreme Court And Big-Time College Sports Meet For Potentially Big-Time Decision

NCAA college basketball is a money spinner for the league, but are the players students or employees? That question is at the heart of a case the Supreme Court agreed to hear next year.
Brynn Anderson
NCAA college basketball is a money spinner for the league, but are the players students or employees? That question is at the heart of a case the Supreme Court agreed to hear next year.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it would review a case testing whether the NCAA's limits on compensation for student athletes violate the nation's antitrust laws.

The court will not hear arguments in the case until after the new year, but the outcome, expected by the end of June, could have enormous consequences for college athletics.

The court's unusual expedition into sports law comes amid an increasing national battle between athletes and the schools they play for over player compensation. On one side, the NCAA says it is just trying to protect amateurism, and to maintain a basic competitive equality between schools that play each other. On the other side, players argue that the top athletic teams are operating a system that acts as a classic restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Are college athletes students or employees?

And at the heart of the case, says sports law expert Gary Roberts, is this question: Are these young men and women "employees or are they students?"

"There's no question that the commercialization of big-time college football and college basketball, particularly men's college basketball, have morphed those activities into a very lucrative business and are taking advantage of students to generate that income," says Roberts, who practiced and taught sports law and antitrust law for more than 40 years. Those students, he says, "ought to be benefited. And by the way, a majority of those students are African American, and that's an issue that can't be ignored in this discussion either."

Popular sports bring in money for other athletic programs

But at the same time, Roberts notes the NCAA system has benefited students who have scholarships to play other sports — golf, tennis, swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, etc. The system, he adds, has similarly benefited football and basketball players at smaller schools with smaller NCAA programs, division three teams, and lots of women's teams.

The case before the Supreme Court involves 126 teams that play big-time football and men's and women's basketball. But for all of college sports, Roberts and other sports law experts say, the lower courts have left these issues in a legal mess.

In the absence of clearly established legal rules, some states have enacted tough regulations to protect athletes.

California, for instance, passed a law last year effectively requiring schools to allow athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses. After the law was enacted, the NCAA abruptly reversed its long-held opposition to such benefits, and said it would issue new policies early next year. Importantly, the NCAA has also asked Congress to adopt the NCAA's position and pre-empt states like California from enacting tougher laws.

What could happen to the billions in revenue

A Supreme Court decision siding with the NCAA would likely fortify the NCAA's effort to maintain tighter restrictions on benefits for big-time college and basketball players. A decision holding that the NCAA has gone too far would likely lead to more benefits for players whose hard work and frequent injuries allow the schools they play for to reap billions in TV and other revenue.

While that revenue sometimes benefits lesser-known sports and players at those schools, many experts say it more often benefits coaches and assistant coaches who are paid tens of millions of dollars, and allows schools to spend millions on mammoth stadiums and lavish locker rooms.

And while big-time college football and basketball do pay for some lesser sports programs, that appears to be less and less true.

Last week 60 minutes reported that "at least 30 universities have cut almost 100 programs: soccer, squash, golf, gymnastics. Football powerhouse Clemson cut men's track and field. Stanford eliminated 11 sports. Schools are honoring existing scholarships, but more than 1,500 student-athletes, both men and women, will no longer have a team to compete for."

Zig-zagging through this legal minefield will be difficult for the Supreme Court, to say the least. And it may well issue a narrow opinion that still leaves most of these questions unresolved. But the fact that the justices decided to take on the this case, when it has dodged similar ones in the past, indicates they are at least serious about the issues.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.