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High court sympathetic to college athletes in NCAA dispute

During arguments conducted by phone, liberal and conservative justices sounded sympathetic to students.

WASHINGTON — Editor's Note: The video above is from February 2020.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed ready to give college athletes a win in a dispute with the NCAA over rules limiting their education-related compensation.

With the March Madness basketball tournament in its final stages, the high court heard arguments in a case about how colleges can reward athletes who play Division I basketball and football. Under current NCAA rules, students cannot be paid, and the scholarship money colleges can offer is capped at the cost of attending the school. The NCAA defends its rules as necessary to preserve the amateur nature of college sports.

But the former athletes who brought the case, including former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, say the NCAA’s rules are unfair and violate federal antitrust law designed to promote competition.

The outcome will help determine how college athletes are compensated and whether schools can offer tens of thousands of dollars in education benefits for things such as postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad opportunities and vocational school payments.

During an hour and a half of arguments conducted by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic, both liberal and conservative justices sounded sympathetic to students.

Justice Elena Kagan suggested that what was going on sounded a lot like price fixing. "Schools that are naturally competitors ... have all gotten together in an organization,” she said, and used their power to “fix athletic salaries at extremely low levels.”

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Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed. He told a lawyer for the NCAA that “it does seem ... schools are conspiring with competitors ... to pay no salaries for the workers who are making the schools billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing.” Kavanaugh said that was “somewhat disturbing.”

A ruling for the former players would not necessarily mean an immediate infusion of cash to current college athletes. It would mean that the NCAA could not bar schools from sweetening their offers to Division I basketball and football athletes with additional education-related benefits. Individual athletic conferences could still set limits.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2020, file photo the Supreme Court is seen at sundown in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Still, if the athletes were to win, there would be pressure on schools to offer additional benefits, and that could create bidding wars for the best players. The NCAA says that could turn off fans and erase the distinction between professional and college sports.

Whatever happens at the high court, changes seem on the way for how college athletes are compensated.

The NCAA is in the process of trying to amend its rules to allow athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses. That would allow athletes to earn money for things like sponsorship deals, online endorsement and personal appearances. For some athletes, those amounts could dwarf any education-related benefits.

The former college athletes have some big-time supporters. The players associations of the NFL, NBA and WNBA all urged the justices to side with the ex-athletes, as did the Biden administration. So far, the former players have won every round of the case.

A decision in the case is expected before the end of June, when the high court traditionally breaks for summer.