On Monday, June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously (9-0) that the NCAA cannot prohibit small payments to student-athletes to compensate them for education-related expenditures and labor.
The ruling addresses only payments that athletes can receive for tutoring, postgraduate scholarships, study abroad, musical instruments, and scientific equipment. It also rules that athletes should receive compensation for academic awards and internships. But it does not address the issue of athletes being paid for their athletic efforts.
“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the opinion issued by the highest court in the country.
Two larger issues that could threaten the way the NCAA and collegiate athletics operate, are pending. In less than two weeks, law suits filed by several former college athletes will challenge the so-called “NIL rights” issue. NIL stands for “Naming, image, and likeness,” and it refers to college athletes not being compensated for the use of their name, image, or likeness on clothing, games, and other media and products. The suits are a federal challenge to the NCAA’s argument that athletes are not entitled to be paid for the use of NIL. Six states have already passed laws allowing players to be compensated under new NIL guidelines. It’s expected that NIL rights will be extended to all athletes in the NCAA soon.
The second, and most controversial issue facing the NCAA and their athletes is whether or not college football players, basketball players, and other athletes are entitled to be paid for playing. Most colleges and universities reap tens or hundreds of millions of dollars from their big ticket sports such as football and basketball.
The Supreme Court stopped short of ruling on the athlete pay issue in their ruling Monday. But the language in the opinion suggests that when and if a case came before the Supreme Court on the issue, the Justices may side with the athletes.
“The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels,” wrote Justice Kavanaugh. “But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”
What This Means For Michigan Collegiate Athletics
The ruling handed down from D.C. by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will have a small impact on athletes on Michigan campuses. Those student/athletes currently performing tutoring duties can be paid, and those who find themselves having to purchase equipment for music or science-related activities for their university, must be compensated for the expenses. Any student in Michigan who studies abroad or who must travel a long distance to attend a mandatory school function or partake in a study program, will be eligible to be paid for their expenses.
But, for now players who strap on their chin straps for Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, who earns more than $4 million per season, will not be paid for blocking, tackling, and scoring touchdowns.
In the future, if players earn their NIL rights, state universities like Michigan and Michigan State will be required to pay players in some way for the use of their names on jerseys. The NCAA would have to pay players if their names or likenesses are licensed for use in video games, for example. It remains to be seen if athletes will band together to demand payments from national and regional TV contracts, which they would feature in prominently.
The Big Ten, which counts U of M and MSU as members, made a reported $768 million in revenue in 2019. The Big Ten Network and media rights purchased by other networks will pull in more than $3 billion in the current contract that runs through 2025. Currently, while coaches and administrators and college presidents have lucrative contracts, athletes see none of the money that the Big Ten rakes in.
The ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court is one small step toward a world where we are likely to see college athletes paid something for their efforts on the field or basketball court. Who will pay the athletes and how much? We can’t know yet. Will high-profit sports like football and basketball earn more, or will payments also go to sports like track and field and women’s softball, ensuring that funding flows to all sports? How would player payments shift the power structure of NCAA athletics? These are questions we may find the answers to soon, as the landscape changes in college sports.