Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court held a hearing in regards to the NCAA and benefits for student-athletes. The core issue is whether or not schools can work together to cap the amount of compensation they provide to student-athletes.
Today, we dive into some of the highlights of that hearing. See below for a tweet by tweet recap with some analysis and thoughts on the judge’s and representatives’ quotes from each side of the argument. Before that, read some summaries of better and more detailed writers here and here (the Athletic and Sports Illustrated, respectively).
"It strikes me as odd that the coaches' salaries have ballooned."— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
Clarence Thomas(!) saying what everyone realizes. https://t.co/U3rB55EZ45
This is a significant point, one that may form the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision. Based on this NCAA cannot work to cap compensation for student-athletes while at the same time completely ignoring any cap on compensation for coaches, athletic directors, bowl directors, and any other non-player. Everyone is aware the money is there, and everyone is aware the money is being spent (or not spent) in a very intentional way.
Justice Kagan to NCAA lawyer: "The way you talk about amateurism sounds awfully high minded. There's another way to think about what's going on here… Schools have gotten together… and use that power to fix athletic salaries… far lower than the market would set."— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
This is straight to the point and well said by Justice Kagan. The NCAA hides behind the outdated idea of amateurism and applauds itself for promoting it and allowing it to endure, all while exploiting those student-athletes for their own financial gain. The reality is more like what is being described in the tweet above, keeping the working class dependent on the elite while continuing to pad their bank accounts.
Justice Kavanaugh: "It does seem… schools are conspiring with competitors to pay no salaries to the workers who are making the schools billions, on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing. That seems entirely circular and even somewhat disturbing"— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
Fair or not, everyone is familiar with Justice Kavanaugh. The interesting point here is he is a conservative judge, so it would not be surprising to see him take that approach with student-athletes being compensated. However, as can be seen in the quote, the opposite takes place. He recognizes the absurd amounts of money that funnel through college football on an annual basis. He also notes how the powers that be made a concentrated effort to keep that money in their hands and far away from the players who are producing the product.
A big part of the NCAA's argument is saying fans don't want college players to make money. The justices don't seem to believe there is evidence for that claim.— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
All it takes is a search on Twitter or even a simple Google search to prove that false. If that is, in fact, a large portion of the argument the NCAA is making, then it is difficult to see how that argument can hold up in court in any meaningful way. Of course, there are a group of fans who want things to stay where they are, but that group seems to decrease in number each year.
Also, it’s puzzling that the NCAA seemed to spend all of this time preparing (or not) only to show up and basically say, “Everyone thinks we are right, just trust us on that.”
Justice Breyer: "This is not an ordinary product. This is an effort to bring into the world something that's brought joy to millions, and it's partly economic. I worry about judges getting into the business of how amateur sports should be run."— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
“Partly economic.” One could argue it is much more than partly. Regardless, the rest of the statement is dead on. College football is a unique sport with a unique process and way of operating. It does bring joy to millions. And judges or the government probably should not be very involved in how it is run. However, that is assuming the people in charge of running it are doing it effectively, which is not the case.
Justice Breyer asked a critical question: What standard of antitrust law scrutiny applies in this case. He notes that how the Court decides in this case could have significant effect in other industries, like the tech industry. This case has legs beyond college sport.— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) March 31, 2021
The critique here reads a bit far-fetched to me. Whether one agrees with it or not, the United States legal system is built on establishing and following precedents. A precedent is a decision from a previous case that is used to guide a decision on a future case. That seems to be the worry of Justice Breyer here that they are ruling not only on this case but also in a whole world of similar cases. She is likely correct to a point; it’s hard to see how it could have a significant on the tech industry (perhaps I am just ignorant), but it is almost assured to have future ramifications on future college sports cases.
Justice Kavanaugh to Kessler/former players: "What is the end game?"— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
Some justices are concerned this would open up a flood of litigation.
Here Justice Kavanaugh critiques the other end of the argument, and not in an unfair way. He, and likely most of the people involved in this, is trying to decide if this is the start of many court hearings and discussions for college athletes’ well-being or if this is more of an isolated event. It’s an excellent question to be asking, mainly in terms of how to solve and frame the problem.
Justice Thomas: "I'm a bit perplexed how the NCAA would be able to preserve what it thinks is important, as the distinction between pros and student-athletes, without constantly being in litigation."— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
Justice Thomas sounds like a man who will be studying up on college sports, seemingly foreshadowing that there will undoubtedly be future litigation surrounding the NCAA and college sports. He believes that the NCAA is fighting a losing battle, and they should decide if they want to lose slow and painful or quick and easy.
Justice Sotomayor: "How do we know we're not destroying the game as it exists?"— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
One would imagine a few people said the same thing when the forward pass became prevalent in modern football.
Although the quote in context probably comes from a place of wanting to prevent a slippery slope, which is valid to some degree.
Justice Alito: "There are a lot of pro sports fans who are turned off by the enormous salaries earned by professional athletes."— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
It was after reading this I had the thought that Justice Alito must spend a significant amount of time scrolling through the sports sector of Twitter.
"There is no pro-competitive justification to deprive student-athletes of the opportunity to obtain those educational benefits through ordinary market competition. We therefore urge the court to affirm." https://t.co/tzi09V6ldB— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) March 31, 2021
If it’s all about a student-athlete’s unlimited educational benefits (and maybe the court will decide that it is), that’s fine. However, that will kickstart another argument. It’s been discussed in other places, so there is no need to go into great detail here, but athletes do not currently have unlimited educational benefits. Many are told what majors they can or can’t declare. All of us poke fun at the droves of players who major in communications, general studies, or liberal arts. But often, coaches direct players into those majors in order to keep their classwork light and their grade-point average high. If the goal of an athletic scholarship is to allow a student to get a free education in exchange for playing a sport, the free education has to be beneficial once their playing career has finished.
Usual disclaimer about not reading the tea leaves...thought the questioning overall by the SC justices was more strident towards the NCAA, but there were sharp questions towards the Players as well. If I had to handicap, would favor the Players, but my sense is it will be close.— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) March 31, 2021
This tweet is used at the end of this post to summarize that although the judges seemed to critique every part of the NCAA’s argument during the hearing, it seems they did their job of being as fair and impartial as possible. That’s all that can be asked. And considering the NCAA is not regularly under this level of accountability, it is a huge step forward, no matter the eventual outcome.
- The Judges did their job by being fair and reasonably objective
- Their critique of the NCAA was their concerns only apply to the players, and they don’t use the same standards to positions held by adults.
- On the players’ side, the critique is their apparent lack of a known destination and fear of a slippery slope.
It would seem that this will end up somewhere in the middle. The NCAA will lose their football on the long-debunked idea of amateur status, while college athletes will not have unlimited benefits on education or NIL or anything. However, their rights should begin to be increased. If I were to sum up my interpretation of the judges, it would be something to the effect of “Just because we think the NCAA is in the wrong, it doesn’t mean the arguments of the student-athletes are right.”
As is the case, more often than not, things tend to move at the speed of a glacier.