Judge rules NCAA can't cap athlete compensation 'related to education,' neither side happy with decision
The NCAA lost a ruling in a student-athlete compensation on Friday night, but the judge's decision was limited
In the immediate aftermath of Friday night's landmark court decision, perhaps it's time for an obvious question: How long until conferences offer cars to athletes to who do not otherwise have transportation to get to and from school?
That's one interpretation of the Alston vs. NCAA antirust lawsuit that was ruled on Friday night by judge Claudia Wilken. In her injunction in the Ninth Circuit Court for the Northern District of California, Wilken ruled the NCAA was in violation of antitrust law regarding compensation for football and men's and women's basketball players.
Wilken's ruling said the NCAA could not limit compensation or benefits "related to education." It became immediately obvious those three words can be broadly interpreted.
While, on the surface, the ruling probably means more scholarship money for postgraduate degrees and more school supplies for athletes in general, it fell short of the plaintiffs' desire for athletes to be eligible for uncapped compensation.
Still, the plaintiffs -- a class of athletes led by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston -- claimed the ruling was "monumental." The NCAA argued the ruling would lead to pay-for-play.
As such, an appeal from the NCAA is expected. A final decision could take a year, and that's assuming the case isn't argued all the way to the Supreme Court. Neither side can be completely happy.
For now, Wilken's decision altered the NCAA's foundational rule that scholarships be limited to tuition, books, room and board, fees, and cost of attendance. But it fell short of free market compensation feared by the NCAA and advocated by the plaintiffs.
Conferences can now offer expanded benefits as part of scholarships as long as they are "related to education." That leaves room for broad interpretation. What exactly qualifies as an educational benefit?
Wilken got specific in saying certain "education-related" items such as "computers, science equipment, musical equipment and other tangible items not included in the cost of attendance" could be offered.
But what is a tangible item? One conference official wondered whether that could mean a car for the star left tackle who lives off campus.
Could any conference offer any academically qualified athlete free pursuit of an MBA at Harvard? Post-graduate scholar-athlete awards are currently limited to $10,000.
What are "expenses related to studying aboard?" Jim Harbaugh has already taken his teams to Europe for spring practice, a trip he says is also culturally enriching. But Michigan pays for that. Could schools reward their highest-achieving athletes with unlimited European (academic) vacations?
At the core of the ruling: Is there a point when any of it becomes a recruiting inducement? On the surface, the ruling is great news for the likes of Duke, Vanderbilt and Stanford, which can offer enhanced post-graduate opportunities for its athletes.
But the same advantage might apply to Kentucky basketball and Ohio State football. Athletic scholarships at powerhouse programs have been enhanced.
Buried in the injunction is Wilken retaining jurisdiction. In essence, any violation of the order will go through her. Typically, courts walk away after such decisions.
In her injunction, Wilken also says the NCAA retains the right to limit "benefits incidental to participation." Plaintiff testimony shows that Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson earned more than the equivalent of $5,500 for various athletic awards following the 2015 season. Former UConn basketball star Breanna Stewart earned the equivalent of $4,000 in 2015-16, according to the testimony.
That leaves in place the dichotomy of the collegiate model. Some argue that players are already being paid; it's just a matter of semantics. Cost of attendance for athletes generally ranges from $300 to $1,000 per month. Olympic athletes can receive stipends for their training. A Texas swimmer receivedfor winning Olympic gold in 2016.
This past season, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray may have become the highest-paid college athlete in history. He accepted a $4.7 million signing bonus from the Oakland A's.
What Wilken's decision doesn't make clear in her 104-page opinion is what accomplishments "tethered" to education could be rewarded. One conference official questioned whether making the dean's list -- or just attending class -- could be rewarded.
Even in its closing brief, NCAA attorneys argued "educational expenses" could be broadly interpreted. Why stop at giving an athlete a MacBook Air laptop when they can foot the bill for a top-of-the-line $3,000 computer with a 3D printer?
These decisions were essentially left up to conferences because it's legally easier for 14 schools to make their own league rules. When 130 schools in the FBS start having similar rules on scholarship limits, that smacks of collusion.
Both sides stated their problems with Wilken's decision.
"Judge Wilken wrote over 100 pages detailing all of the harms caused by the con of amateurism," said Ricky Volante, CEO of the Historical Basketball League. "Yet in her ruling, on the last few pages, she chose to leave almost all of that harm in place. She actively worried that the six- and seven-figure salaried athletic directors and commissioners who run these college sports leagues might make 'miscalculations' and overpay their athletes."
The HBL debuts next season featuring paid college athletes who will compete during their college offseason.
The NCAA released a statement Friday night.
"The court's decision recognizes that college sports should be played by student-athletes, not by paid professionals," said chief legal officer Donald Remy. "… Although the court rejected the plaintiffs' desire for a free market system, we will explore our next steps as appropriate. We believe the ruling is inconsistent with the decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in O'Bannon. That decision held that the rules governing college athletics would be better developed outside the courtroom, including rules around the education-related support that schools provide."
The O'Bannon opinion -- previously authored by Wilken in 2014 -- found that the NCAA had violated antitrust laws by limiting athletes' access to capitalizing on their name, image and likeness. Her $5,000-per-year annual minimum paid to athletes for those rights were struck down because it was not tethered to education.
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