Athletes fight for rights in the NCAA

With March Madness wrapped up, college sports fans are turning to a different court: the Supreme Court. On March 31, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments for National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) v. Allston, the most recent antitrust suit against the association. As collegiate athletics becomes more profitable, student athletes are demanding more rights and compensation for their talents. Critics of the NCAA argue that the association is exploiting the athletes by profiting from their talents without allowing them to seek compensation in any way. 

For both football and basketball, the most lucrative collegiate programs, the professional leagues prohibit athletes from being drafted right out of high school. The National Football League requires athletes to be at least three years out of high school before they are eligible for the draft. The National Basketball Association requires athletes to be at least 19 years old. These rules result in athletes taking post-grad years or more often playing for one year in college. This basketball phenomenon is referred to as “one and done.” For both sports, there is not a popular minor league in the U.S, meaning for athletes hopeful for a professional career, playing in college is the only viable option, forcing athletes to abide by the rules and regulations mandated by the NCAA. 

The NCAA argues that athletes are compensated for their talents in the form of a higher education degree. The NCAA contends that this transaction preserves the amateur status of college athletics. They are student-athletes, not professional athletes, and that distinction is paramount to the league. If they are compensated with cash or sponsorships, the NCAA believes that would ruin their amateur status and the value of the league. However, as the industry becomes more lucrative with television deals and team sponsorships, the athletes drawing the fans are seeking compensation beyond a college degree. 

In the most recent legal battle, NCAA v. Alston, the plaintiff, Shawn Alston, is a former West Virginia University running back. His legal team is arguing that the NCAA’s restrictions on compensation violate federal antitrust laws because they limit players’ ability to be compensated for their talents. Essentially, the NCAA’s restrictions on compensation make it so colleges do not need to expend large amounts of money to attract athletes, but in doing this, it restricts the students’ ability to seek a better deal for their talents. The NCAA asserts that there is still competition in the recruiting process, and compensating students would blur the line between amateur and professional athletics, which is what draws fans to collegiate sports. 

In May 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the NCAA cannot restrict compensation or benefits related to education for Division I football and basketball players, but they can restrict compensation unrelated to education, such as sponsorships. If this ruling remains, athletes would be able to get laptops, science equipment, musical instruments, and other non-cash educational items. The NCAA is appealing this ruling because they believe that it could be used to pay athletes for their talents, thus ending amateurism. 

This is not the first time the NCAA has been accused of violating antitrust laws. In 1984, the Board of Regents at the University of Oklahoma and Georgia University sued the NCAA for prohibiting them from selling their TV rights. The NCAA argued that they had the right to decide air time for teams to ensure equal time. The Board of Regents argued that the NCAA was violating antitrust laws, and the Supreme Court agreed. 

More recently, Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, sued the NCAA for selling the rights for his likeness to EA, the company that makes sports video games. He argued that the NCAA was violating antitrust laws as it was preventing student athletes from making their own deals with EA and profiting off of their own likeness. The NCAA contended that it was keeping the players amateurs. This case has not yet been resolved but it has sparked discourse around athletes’ rights to their own name and likeness. 

As Instagram and other social media sites have given student athletes large platforms, the debate over their right to seek endorsements has heightened. Currently athletes cannot profit off of their likeness in any way. They cannot accept brand deals or endorsements, even if it is unrelated to athletics. It is estimated that certain NCAA stars like Trevor Lawrence, Zion Williamson, and Jalen Hurts would be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from social media sponsorships alone. A recent bill passed in California will allow student athletes to hire agents, obtain endorsements, and sell their likeness. This law is set to be enacted in 2023. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, commented to the New York Times, “Every single student in the university can market their name, image and likeness; they can go and get a YouTube channel, and they can monetize that, the only group that can’t is athletes. Why is that?”

California is not the only state making legislative change. Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey and former Stanford tight end, co-sponsored the College Athletes Bill of Rights. If passed, this bill would ensure the athletes’ right to compensation, to monetize their name, image, and likeness, and to sign revenue-sharing agreements with their teams. 

To complicate matters further, many are citing the disproportionate percentage of black athletes in the exploitive system of the NCAA. In the Power Five (the highest grossing collegiate athletic conference), the percentage of black students is wildly smaller than the proportion of black athletes. At Texas A&M, the second highest grossing collegiate athletic program, black students make up 3.1% of the total population, but 75% of the football team and 92.9% of the women’s basketball team. Black students are exploited for their skills, and many are not given anything in return. While the total graduation rate for NCAA athletes is 90%, the number of male black student athletes that graduate within six years is only 56%. As soon as an athlete’s eligibility expires, they can lose their scholarship, making it very difficult for lower income athletes to finish their education. Predominantly white institutions are bringing in black athletes, exploiting their talents, and not giving them pathways to get a degree. 

In response to the mounting social and legal pressure, the NCAA has formed a committee to review their regulations regarding endorsements and compensation. The NCAA continually defends their actions by claiming they are protecting the amatuer status of college sports. They argue that having brand deals will mimic a professional salary and ruin the appeal of the games for fans. They believe that the tuition and diploma are enough compensation for the student’s talents and the recruiting practices are enough competition that they do not violate antitrust laws. 

Every year 2% of college athletes go on to play professionally. Only a handful of students have the social media following that would result in large monetary earnings. Despite being such a small pool of people, the NCAA’s treatment of their athletes has struck a chord with the nation. The NCAA is a multi-billion dollar industry that does not pay its star employees. While many believe that college athletics amatuer status is sacred, many are arguing that the NCAA is exploiting its athletes. The tension surrounding the NCAA, raises many questions about the future of collegiate athletics and the partnership of athletics with academic institutions.

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