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The NCAA and Student Athletes: Compensation for a Unique Labor Force

Spencer Campbell - Law Clerk at Freking Myers & Reul

Nearly since the very beginning of college sports, student athletes have had a unique place in the labor market. Before the creation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), colleges were spending massive amounts of money to lure athletes to play on their school teams. In fact, the problem got so bad that student athletes were making more money than professional athletes for a time. College football was known to be especially corrupt and unethical at the turn of the 20th century, which prompted the creation of the NCAA in 1906. Players were paid higher salaries than business executives and would change teams from week to week based on who paid them the most. This picture of college athletes making fistfuls of cash playing an unregulated game stands in stark contrast to the world of college sports that we see today.
In the modern landscape of college athletics, the NCAA exercises broad control over how schools are allowed to compensate and compete for student athletes. The NCAA’s rules on compensation are strict and have been criticized for years. Until recently, NCAA rules restricted schools to offering only scholarship money to student athletes. Additionally, student athletes were barred from profiting off of their name or likeness while competing for an NCAA team. But on Monday, June 21, 2021, the United States Supreme Court took up the question of the NCAA’s broad authority over student athlete compensation. The Court rendered a unanimous decision that loosens the NCAA’s ban on any compensation for student athletes beyond scholarships.
The case was brought by a collection of student athletes against the NCAA and 11 Division-I conferences. The Court’s decision came in two parts. First, the Court found that the NCAA’s rules surrounding scholarship and direct compensation to athletes are allowed, because they serve to draw a line between college and professional sports. But the Court ruled in favor of the student athletes in the second part. The Court held that the NCAA cannot restrict the extent to which schools offer student athletes education-related benefits, such as computers and other technology for school, internships, and tuition for graduate school.
While the Court punted on the question of whether student athletes could be paid directly, its decision provides a small win for this unique labor force. While we won’t see Division-I quarterbacks making millions of dollars while still in school anytime soon, we may see schools competing for athletes by offering textbooks, tutoring, or study-abroad experiences. For now, student athletes can directly benefit a little bit more from the value that they bring to their schools, but the “amateur” nature of college sports remains under the tightfisted supervision of the NCAA.
For more information read:
National Collegiate Athletic Association, Petitioner v. Shawne Alston, et al.