A judge ruled against the NCAA on Friday night in a federal antitrust lawsuit, saying football and basketball players should be permitted to receive more compensation from schools but only if the benefits are tied to education.
The ruling Friday night from U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, California, said the NCAA cannot "limit compensation or benefits related to education." That means more scholarship money to pursue postgraduate degrees or finish undergraduate degrees, and items that could be considered school supplies such as computers.
The plaintiffs in the so-called Alston cases were seeking much more. Plaintiffs had asked the judge to lift all NCAA caps on compensation and to allow schools to provide benefits beyond a scholarship to college athletes. The goal was to create a free market, where conferences set rules for compensating athletes, but this ruling still allows the NCAA to prohibit cash compensation untethered to education-related expenses.
"It's still significant that a federal judge ruled the NCAA violated antitrust law, but the remedy is relatively narrow and this is certainly not the sea change that the plaintiffs were looking for in college sports," said Gabe Feldman director of the Tulane University sports law program.
The claim against the NCAA and the 11 conferences that have participated at the highest level of college football was originally brought by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston and later merged with similar lawsuits, including a notable case brought by former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins.
Plaintiffs argued the NCAA illegally restricts schools from compensating football and basketball players beyond what is traditionally covered by a scholarship. That includes tuition, room and board and books, plus a cost of attendance stipend to cover incidentals such as travel.
"We have proven to the court that the NCAA's weak justifications for this unfair system are based on a self-serving mythology that does not match the facts," said Steve Berman, the Seattle-based lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
The NCAA countered that altering amateurism rules would lead to pay-for-play, fundamentally damaging college sports and harming academic integration of athletes.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has already said it expects to take the case after Wilken's ruling and it is possible that whatever she rules will be stayed until the Ninth Circuit rules.
The case might not stop there, and could end up in front of the Supreme Court.
Wilken is the same judge who ruled on the so-called O'Bannon case, which challenged the NCAA's right to use athletes' names, images and likenesses without compensation. The case produced a mixed ruling that eventually went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Wilken ruled schools should be permitted, but not required, to compensate athletes for use of their name, image and likeness, with payments capped at $5,000 per year. The appeals court overturned that and said payments "untethered" to education were not required by schools."
Wilken also ruled the NCAA was required to allow schools to factor in their federally determined cost of attendance into the value of an athletic scholarship. That is now common practice in major college sports, though schools were already moving toward NCAA legislation allowing for cost of attendance when Wilken made her ruling.
The plaintiffs argued in the Alston case that implementation of cost-of-attendance stipends prove paying athletes even more would not hurt college sports.
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