Ruling for athletes a big step toward change for NCAA

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The evolving world of college athletics and how it can be monetized for athletes took a significant step toward change when the Supreme Court on Monday ruled unanimously against the NCAA.

With its decision, the nine-member Supreme Court sided with former athletes, including West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, in NCAA v. Alston. The decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, said the NCAA violated antitrust laws by agreeing to limit what athletes can be compensated for in terms of education-related costs.

Ruling unanimously, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the NCAA’s bid for broad antitrust immunity and upheld an order that will let member schools provide more education-related benefits to student-athletes, including computers and internships.

College athletes cannot be paid under current NCAA rules, and what schools offer is the scholarship money required to attend the school. The NCAA has argued that its rules preserve amateur status.

“Having a lawyer’s eye for this, it’s not as sweeping as I think it should be,” said Jordan Acker, a lawyer, the incoming chair of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, and an outspoken advocate for the rights of college athletes. “It fundamentally changes the requirements of certain academic-related benefits, but I think what’s most fascinating about this is Justice (Brett) Kavanaugh’s concurrence.

"It takes a sledgehammer to the NCAA. And he’s right."

Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion blisters the NCAA and includes this final comment: “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.

“The NCAA is not above the law.”

More: Analysis: Court ruling leaves NCAA more vulnerable than ever

Rick Chryst was Mid-American Conference commissioner for 10 years and is now senior vice president of counsel with Farmington Hills-based Dietz Sports and Entertainment. His primary focus is college athletics and has taken an active interest in this case and name, image and likeness statutes.

“To get a unanimous decision on it is signaling in strong ways,” said Chryst, whose brother is Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst. “There’s no doubt now the action has shifted to the states and to Congress, and it will make any national rulemaking from (NCAA headquarters in) Indianapolis much, much more problematic.”

Short of calling it a win for athletes, Chryst said the Supreme Court ruling offers “clarity.”

“But it’s still so early in terms of what college sports 2025 is going to look like,” he said. “It sort of reinforces in my mind heavy trending —  trendy is a little understated —  where the public’s at on it.

“Now you’ve got enfranchised in a Supreme Court decision, a definitive position on how the NCAA’s rulemaking is going to be evaluated. To me, that was the high-stakes game of choosing to appeal. Not for me to question the strategy or anything, but I think the end game for the NCAA was, absent a really strong Supreme Court decision, we’re going to be in court on potentially every foundational issue, and they didn’t get that. In fact, they got the opposite.”

After reading the entire Supreme Court response, Acker said Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion summed up the arguments.

“The NCAA essentially says customers prefer amateur athletics because they’re amateur, but they can’t actually say why,” Acker said. “It would be like saying, ‘Do customers prefer UM business students who are unpaid? If so, why?’ The answer is, they don’t. The audiences don’t care. They care about two things —  the thing that binds everyone together is the love for the university and their ability and willingness to learn and go to class. That’s what really binds them together. It’s not being unpaid.

“Justice Kavanaugh really laid this out well when he says this would be flatly illegal in any other business to allow this. Ultimately, he suggests two ways, and I entirely agree with him, for this to get fixed. The first one is, Congress passes a law or the second one is the colleges and student-athletes engage in collective bargaining, and he’s right. I don’t frankly know what the NCAA was doing by bringing this to the Supreme Court in the first place.”

This case is not about requiring schools to spend more on their athletes in terms of education-related benefits, but the ruling allows schools to do so. This means the NCAA can’t prevent schools from making scholarship offers more attractive with those added benefits, which could skew recruiting.

“This is a victory for those of us who believe the old regime is not tenable,” Acker said. “It will, over time, poke serious holes in the NCAA and their theory of amateurism. It’s also important not to overstate what it does. It only refers to those things involving academic benefits. The fact we’re still in this place, the NCAA has forced everyone to move forward.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling is not associated with the fact 19 states have adopted name, image and likeness statutes, some of which kick in on July 1.

NCAA President Mark Emmert told the Associated Press on Monday the decision makes name, image and likeness reforms “more complicated” but “doesn’t mean we can’t and we shouldn’t.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last December signed name, image and likeness legislation to allow college athletes to benefit financially from endorsements and sponsorship contracts beginning Dec. 31, 2022.

It was first introduced as a bipartisan plan in the Michigan House by Democrat Joe Tate and Republican Brandt Iden. Iden played tennis for Kalamazoo College, and Tate was a three-year starting offensive lineman at Michigan State and a co-captain in 2003.

"At the end of the day, this issue has been one of fairness,” Tate told The Detroit News last year after Whitmer signed the legislation. “While the NCAA’s actions on crafting NIL rules leave me optimistic that all stakeholders will work together on finding the right solution, we wanted to ensure student-athletes in Michigan will be in a good position.”

What the Supreme Court decision does indicate is a strong push toward the evolving earning rights of college athletes.

“It’s gonna be turbulent, but it’s moving,” Chryst said. “These are real things that are happening —  July 1 is a real date when state laws kick in. It’s all in motion, and it will be very challenging for those involved. For those that are optimistic that you can have a professional model in a college model that makes sense and is sustainable and you can articulate the differences, now’s the time.”

Twitter: @chengelis