Two days after Juneteenth, the Supreme Court rejected NCAA limits on athletes’ education-related benefits. The ruling was justice. The timing was poetic justice. Here’s why.
Juneteenth commemorates emancipation of African-American slaves in the United States.
“Juneteenth” refers to June 19, 1865. On that day, the Union military governor of Texas, Maj. General Gordon Granger, issued General Order No. 3. That order implemented Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 and declared free all slaves in Texas.
While slavery continued in some parts of the U.S. until ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 18, 1865, Juneteenth became fixed as the day of commemoration.
The Supreme Court: NCAA Vs. Alston
The College Sports Cartel
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) holds itself out as “a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.”
In practice, the NCAA operates as a cartel. It comprises approximately 1,100 colleges and universities, across Division I (about 350), Division II (about 300) and Division III (about 450).
NCAA regulations govern every aspect of collegiate athletics, from recruiting, to eligibility, to practices and games, to player scholarships, allowances, and benefits.
The NCAA’s Division I manual stretches over 465 pages.
And these regulations come with teeth. The NCAA can sanction members (and their coaches and players), including through monetary fines and forfeitures, reductions in scholarships, and bans from competing,
The Court’s Ruling: No Limiting Education-Related Benefits
The June 21 ruling dealt only with NCAA limits on education-related benefits. (Examples include scholarships for graduate or vocational school, payments for academic tutoring, or paid post-eligibility internships.)
Current and former NCAA athletes argued that the regulations violated federal anti-trust laws.
The NCAA defended its practices, in part, by stating that they “preserve amateurism, which in turn widens consumer choice by providing a unique product—amateur college sports as distinct from professional sports.”
The Supreme Court sided with the plaintiff-athletes. It barred on anti-trust grounds NCAA limits on education-related benefits.
But, the Court gave the NCAA some leeway. The Court noted that “the district court invited the NCAA to specify and later enforce rules delineating which benefits it considers legitimately related to education.”
The Real Pro’s Of The NCAA
Citing the trial court opinion, the Supreme Court pointed out that “the NCAA ‘nowhere define[s] the nature of the amateurism they claim consumers insist upon.’”
A heavier salvo against the NCAA’s “amateur” model came in a concurring opinion from Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“[T]he NCAA and its member colleges are suppressing the pay of student athletes who collectively generate billions of dollars in revenues for colleges every year. Those enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes.”
Consider some hard numbers buttressing Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion:
- College sports generate approximately $11 billion per year from ticket sales and other revenue-producing activities
- Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour pay these schools over $300 million annually in cash and goods
- The NCAA President receives a base salary of $2.7 million. Reports of his previous total compensation suggest he might make over $4 million per year
- Median compensation of the 50-highest-paid Division I football coaches exceeds $4.25 million
- Median compensation of the 50-highest-paid Division I basketball coaches exceeds $3 million
These numbers drive home the NCAA’s hypocrisy. From the NCAA’s perspective, the only thing that need be amateur about NCAA sports are the young men and women who train, compete, and get injured.
These are the same young men and women whose performances people pay to see.
Who Will Hinder — And Who Will Speed — The Jubilee?
Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion also notes that a high proportion of student athletes, who “end up with little or nothing,” are African American and from lower-income backgrounds.
Football and men’s basketball programs generate nearly 60% of collegiate sports revenues. At Power Five* schools, these programs probably bring in more than $2 billion in annual revenues.
According to a 2018 study, black male athletes make up 2.4 percent of the undergraduate population at Power Five schools. At the same time, they comprise 55 percent of the football teams and 56 percent of the men’s basketball teams.
Of these black male athletes, 55.2 percent graduated within six years, compared to 69.3 percent of all athletes, 60.1 percent of all black undergraduate men and 76.3 percent of all undergraduate students.
So, in nearly 1 case in 2, the “next to nothing” that high-value, black Power Five players end up with does not even include a college degree.
21st-Century Jim Crow
The NCAA has gotten used to writing its own rules.
It will try to do so here.
In fact, immediately after losing at the Supreme Court, NCAA President Mark Emmert promised that the NCAA “remain[s] committed to working with Congress to chart a path forward.”
This is no idle talk. Emmert knows he has the cartel members, the boosters, the lobbyists, and the media behind him. The NCAA feeds them well.
But from whose labor?
In 1858, Lincoln distilled the essence of injustice as, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.”
Is there a better way to sum up the NCAA’s treatment of college athletes, a majority of whose high-value players are black?
In 2021, Americans at the national, state, and local level have been confronting past injustices, especially those centering on race.
It would be a shame if, in our preoccupation with past injustices, we fail to act on one taking place before our eyes.