The Supreme Court will hear an appeal from the NCAA and 11 top conferences in a case that challenges caps on education-based benefits that can be received by football and basketball players. The decision has the potential to reshape college athletics at a time when a player's ability to be compensated is one of the top issues in front of the NCAA.
"I think it would be hard to overstate the potential significance" of the Supreme Court's decision, Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane's sports law program, told USA Today.
The NCAA and conferences are seeking to overturn lower-court rulings that found the association in violation of antitrust laws regarding education-based benefits. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that that athletes in football along with men's and women's basketball should be able to receive scholarships and paid internships as part of those education-based benefits.
The NCAA can set limits on compensation that is not education based; however, that model is expected to change radically next year with the adoption of name, image and likeness rights.
"We are pleased the U.S. Supreme Court will review the NCAA's rights to provide student-athletes with the educational benefits they need to succeed in school and beyond," NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. "The NCAA and its members continue to believe that college campuses should be able to improve the student-athlete experience without facing never-ending litigation regarding these changes."
The Supreme Court could rule on the NCAA petition by June. Legal experts were already speculating about how the current conservative court might rule.
"Conservatives do not like the expansion of labor rights," Ricky Volante, a Cleveland-based attorney familiar with NCAA litigation, told CBS Sports. "They generally fall on the side of the employer or management. The last thing they want to see is expanded rights that -- generally speaking -- impact the bottom line. In this case, it would impact the bottom line significantly."
The lower-court ruling in place would allow athletes to receive broader education-based benefits that the NCAA claims would "effectively create a pay-for-play system." Conferences do not have to provide those benefits and cannot act jointly. Among the items the lower court said the NCAA could not limit were "computers, science equipment, musical instruments … post-eligibility scholarships to complete undergraduate or graduate degrees at any school; scholarships to attend 14 vocational school; tutoring; expenses related to studying abroad … and paid post-eligibility internships."
The Supreme Court seldom hears cases involving the NCAA and college athletics. In the past regarding such cases, the NCAA has relied on the landmark 1984 NCAA vs Board of Regents decision to make to support its amateurism rules. It was a case the association lost opening the door to the monster TV rights paid to conferences. But within that decision, the court wrote, "in order to preserve the character and quality of the [college] product," athletes must not be paid.
The conferences involved in the petition were the 10 current FBS leagues and the WAC, which sponsored football in 2014 when the original lawsuit filed by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston was filed.