March Madness has been making headlines — but not only for the outcomes of the games. Viral social media posts, like the one recently shared by University of Oregon women’s basketball forward Sedona Price, have highlighted disparities in how NCAA men’s and women’s basketball players are treated.
Now, some in the sports world are wondering: Could a current United States Supreme Court case shift those disparities?
On March 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in NCAA v. Alston. It’s one of numerous legal challenges filed over the last decade aimed at expanding the benefits college athletes can receive. The NCAA, an association of more than 1,100 colleges and universities that sets the rules governing college sports, generates more than $1 billion in annual revenue. (March Madness, the finals of which are being held this weekend, generates more than $800 million). While coaches’ salaries and spending on facilities have skyrocketed, financial benefits for college athletes are fixed at an athletic scholarship.
This particular case stems from a 2019 U.S. District Court ruling that the NCAA’s amateurism standard — which limits the compensation an NCAA athlete can receive to a full-tuition athletic scholarship — violates federal antitrust law.
The lower court ruled that the NCAA could not limit the education-related benefits schools provide college athletes. The ruling did not allow for NCAA athletes to be paid salaries, but opened the door to schools paying for Division I football and basketball athletes’ study abroad trips, postgraduate internship salaries and other items, like computers, that aren’t covered under athletic scholarships.
On the surface, NCAA v. Alston is about extending educational benefits to NCAA athletes. But how the Supreme Court rules could set the course for the NCAA’s rules related to athlete compensation and whether the amateurism standard survives.
That’s been a fraught topic in college sports recently. Since 2019, a number of states, led by California and followed most recently by Georgia, have enacted laws allowing intercollegiate athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses by restoring athletes’ right of publicity. Under the NCAA’s amateurism standard, NCAA athletes at all schools who are members of the association are forbidden from exercising this right.
Outside of Alston, the NCAA is pushing for Congress to pass federal name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation. The association argues that federal legislation is necessary for consistency in how NCAA athletes benefit from their names, images and likenesses, because not all states recognize the right of publicity.
“It’s not clear at all that the [Supreme Court] case and how they rule will have any implication around NIL,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told reporters at an April 1 news conference. “The legislative process in Congress is significantly more important than the Supreme Court case in determining what the policies and legal framework is for NIL.”
Experts say that should the Supreme Court’s decision in Alston strike down the NCAA’s amateurism standard, it could open the door to more states enacting NIL bills and, in turn, create greater revenue generation opportunities for women’s sport athletes.
Women’s professional sport athletes have historically been paid significantly less than their male counterparts. But providing compensation to NCAA athletes could help female athletes lessen the gap between what they and male athletes earn by giving them extra years of earning potential during college. As Nancy Skinner, the California state senator who wrote the state’s bill, told USA Today, “College may be the only time that a woman athlete is going to have the spotlight on her. Why is she then restricted from getting any income from her skill and talent?”
Other experts also believe a decision in favor of the Alston plaintiffs could create greater financial opportunities for female college athletes.
“An antitrust win would come with benefits for female athletes, such as payments covering education expenses,” said Michael A. Carrier, a distinguished professor of law at Rutgers University. “Future cases could build on Alston, allowing female athletes to receive modestly more compensation that could more accurately capture their contributions to college sports.”
Tan Boston, an assistant professor of law at Northern Kentucky University, agreed. “A Supreme Court ruling favoring the Alston plaintiffs would be a huge win for female NCAA athletes in the short run, because it would end the debate surrounding the legality of the NCAA’s amateurism rules,” she said.
During oral arguments in Alston, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked the NCAA’s attorney what impact a decision against the NCAA might have “on Title IX and women’s sports.” Barrett was the only justice to question how the Court’s decision could impact Title IX. Some argue that’s because Title IX is irrelevant to the Alston case.
“Title IX and gender equity isn’t legally part of this picture; finding that the NCAA and its member institutions can no longer unreasonably restrain the labor market for college athletes has nothing to do with the obligation to provide equitable opportunities and experiences to women athletes,” said Dionne Koller, a professor of law and the director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore.
Because the NCAA is not a federally funded educational setting, Title IX does not apply to it as a governing body. Still, the federal law, enacted in 1972 to give equal opportunity to men and women in federally funded educational settings and applied to sports in 1975, is relevant in a larger discussion of the compensation of student athletes.
To comply with Title IX, athletics departments at institutions receiving federal funding must provide equal athletic opportunity, equal treatment and equivalency in financial aid to both genders. A 2020 study by Champion Women and the California Women’s Law Center found that 90 percent of universities are in violation of at least one of Title IX’s requirements. So, some fear that if the Supreme Court rules in Alston to allow schools to offer NCAA athletes more benefits, those benefits will flow mostly to male athletes.
According to Barbara Osborne, a professor of sport law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “the most money is already spent on football and men’s basketball, and scholarship spending is significantly lower for female athletes than for male athletes at many institutions.” She believes “schools will likely continue to prioritize spending on the ‘revenue’ sports” while cutting other sports or funding for women’s teams.
A decision in Alston is expected from the Supreme Court in May or June. The Court could find the amateurism rule violates antitrust law and uphold the remedy of unlimited education-related benefits. Or, it could rule more broadly and deem the amateurism bylaw illegal altogether. Such a ruling would open the door to NCAA athletes receiving compensation not tied to education whatsoever. For the NCAA, what’s at stake is its rulemaking authority.
“The single most important thing to me coming out of the Supreme Court case, and I hope we wind up there, is we get some clarity about what the law is, clarity about who has responsibility for what, clarity about how these issues will be decided whether through Congressional processes, through legal processes, or through NCAA decision-making processes, what each of the roles are for those entities,” Emmert, president of the NCAA, said in a news conference.
Following outcry about the disparities at March Madness, the NCAA has hired an outside firm to review what led to the difference in facilities for men’s and women’s basketball players. But with significant legal questions at stake for the NCAA at both the judicial and legislative levels, it still remains to be seen what will be done in terms of ensuring athletes of both genders the same benefits.