The Supreme Court on Monday ruled unanimously that the National Collegiate Athletic Association may not bar modest payments to athletes.
The court upheld a 2019 ruling by a federal district court judge, which in turn was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last year. The rulings all concern the Sherman Act, which bars monopolies by organizations in the United States.
But the justices did not take a potential opportunity to challenge the NCAA's overall regulations limiting the value of scholarships and other compensation tied to athletic performance, which could have undermined the entire business model of college athletics.
"Some will think the district court did not go far enough. By permitting colleges and universities to offer enhanced education-related benefits, its decision may encourage scholastic achievement and allow student-athletes a measure of compensation more consistent with the value they bring to their schools. Still, some will see this as a poor substitute for fuller relief," the decision said.
The decision added: "At the same time, others will think the district court went too far by undervaluing the social benefits associated with amateur athletics. For our part, though, we can only agree with the Ninth Circuit: 'The national debate about amateurism in college sports is important. But our task as appellate judges is not to resolve it. Nor could we. Our task is simply to review the district court judgment through the appropriate lens of antitrust law.' That review persuades us the district court acted within the law’s bounds."
The ruling also rejected the NCAA's claims about the lower court's ruling and how it ignored important principles. It said, "Once again, though, we think the district court honored these principles. The court enjoined only restraints on education-related benefits -- such as those limiting scholarships for graduate school, payments for tutoring, and the like. The court did so, moreover, only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand -- and only after finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules."
The court also took on the NCAA over amateurism. "While the NCAA asks us to defer to its conception of amateurism, the district court found that the NCAA had not adopted any consistent definition," the decision said. "Instead, the court found, the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly overtime.The court found, too, that the NCAA adopted these restrictions without any reference to 'considerations of consumer demand,' and that some were 'not necessary to preserve consumer demand,' None of this is product redesign; itis a straightforward application of the rule of reason."