This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
So just how unpopular is the NCAA‘s antiquated contention that college athletes, who form the foundation of a multibillion-dollar industry, don’t deserve to make money in addition to their scholarships?
Consider that when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the landmark lawsuit involving the NCAA and former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, who first sued in 2012 to challenge amateurism rules, all nine justices ruled against the college sports regulatory body.
The decision will likely compel the NCAA to loosen rules around compensating college athletes, and invite further legal challenges to the tenuous definition of amateurism upon which the college sports industry rests. And it demonstrated that, even in the most polarized era most of us can remember, a sliver of common ground still exists.
For reasons known only to people on the conservative/Republican/Trumpist end of the U.S. political spectrum, Americans can’t agree on fundamental questions, like whether Joe Biden won last November’s election, whether vaccines work, or whether voter suppression is hazardous to the country’s health.
In a less fractious time we wouldn’t have a debate — the answer to all three questions is “yes.” Instead, halfway through 2021 we still have members of congress pretending Jan. 6 insurrectionists were harmless tourists, and NFL players trumpeting their refusal to take a needle that could keep them and their teammates healthy.
But the opportunity to humble the NCAA, which came to the Supreme Court leaning on the flimsy idea that people watch college sports because the players aren’t paid, united all nine justices.
High court sides with ex-athletes in NCAA compensation case
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Remember, we’re talking about an organization that, starting in 2025, will collect $1.1 billion US a year in broadcast revenue from the men’s basketball tournament alone. And we’re discussing an industry where schools change conferences based on TV money, conferences add teams to maximize their broadcast reach, and where salaries for top coaches are edging toward eight figures.
Thanks to the Supreme Court we can now, hopefully, move on from debating whether the players deserve more in return for their talent, plus the time and effort they invest in building college sports into big-money business. Now we can address more urgent questions, like how a pay-for-play setup could work, when the NCAA will modernize its outdated rules, and whether it will choose to adapt, or just let court challenges and new competitors pound it into submission.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote the lead opinion, stopping short of calling for salaries for players, but pointing out that more compensation, either in kind or in cash, was fair, as long as it was still related to education.
‘The NCAA is not above the law’
But Brett Kavanaugh, another Trump appointee, expressed his skepticism toward the NCAA in much stronger words.
“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 market rate,” he wrote in his concurring opinion. “Under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it’s not evident why college sports would be any different. The NCAA is not above the law.”
On Kavanaugh’s first point, we can look to the Olympics as evidence that broadcasters and sports don’t care whether world-class athletes are amateur, professional, or a hybrid. The Olympics don’t pay prize money or appearance fees, but dropped its amateurism requirement in 1988 without damaging the brand.