Student athletes win US Supreme Court showdown against NCAA

The US Supreme Court on Monday sided with student-athletes who brought an antitrust challenge against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, in a blockbuster ruling that could reshape the more than $14bn US college sports industry.

The court’s nine justices unanimously held that restrictions set by the NCAA, the US collegiate sport governing body, on education-related benefits to student athletes were unfair.

“By permitting colleges and universities to offer enhanced education-related benefits, [the lower court’s] decision may encourage scholastic achievement and allow student-athletes a measure of compensation more consistent with the value they bring to their schools,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the court’s opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh questioned the NCAA’s practices more broadly, writing: “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”

The ruling is the most significant challenge to the business model of American college sports, whose traditions date back over a century and in some cases serve as the de facto talent pipeline for several top US professional leagues, including football and basketball. 

The NCAA and its member universities maintained that preserving the amateur status of participating athletes is critical to college sports’ appeal, an argument the justices found unpersuasive.

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“Colleges and universities across the country have leveraged sports to bring in revenue, attract attention, boost enrolment, and raise money from alumni,” the court wrote in its summary of the case. “That profitable enterprise relies on ‘amateur’ student athletes who compete under horizontal restraints that restrict how the schools may compensate them for their play”.

Current NCAA rules effectively limit the kind of compensation athletes competing at member universities can receive to scholarships or related benefits.

The current case, an amalgam of several lawsuits against the NCAA brought by current and former college athletes, argued that those rules violate the US Sherman Act.

“It is our hope that this victory in the battle for college athletes’ rights will carry on a wave of justice uplifting further aspects of athlete compensation,” said Steve Berman, an attorney who represented the athletes in the case. “This is the fair treatment college athletes deserve.”

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