NCAA Narrowly Loses Antitrust Lawsuit

In 1990, Louis Barbash wrote in the Washington Monthly that college athletes should be paid and should not be required to be students at the colleges for which they play. In 2014, Matt Connolly reported on the brazen hypocrisy of paying college football coaches millions of dollars (at the time, college football coaches were the highest-paid state employees in 27 states) while putting players’ bodies–and earning potential–in harm’s way.

In August 2013, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA “violated antitrust laws in not allowing players to receive compensation from their names and likenesses,” Connolly wrote. “Called the O’Bannon suit after former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, it was a landmark ruling that the NCAA promptly appealed.” Unfortunately, a circuit court ruling reversed, in part, Wilken’s ruling. O’Bannon’s appeal request to the Supreme Court was denied.

On Friday, Judge Wilken struck again–kind of. She ruled partially in favor of an antitrust lawsuit brought by a group of former football and basketball players. Their goal was to destroy the NCAA’s “amateurism” farce and open the way for unlimited compensation for athletes. Wilken agreed in principle, but strictly limited the additional compensation to tangible costs “related to the pursuit of academic studies.” Instead of direct cash payments, schools can give athletes “laptops” or pay for “tutoring” and study abroad expenses. (Athletes, Wilken ruled, can’t resell those laptops.)

Wilken’s ruling, in effect, says playing college sports is part of an overall educational experience. Barbash, in a 2013 follow-up piece, rebuts this line of thinking:

If colleges believe that having a basketball or football team contributes to education, let them keep them. But let them run their teams like they do other campus-based enterprises, like public radio and TV stations or hospitals. Program producers and station engineers at college-based NPR and PBS stations don’t work for nothing. Neither do doctors and nurses at university hospitals. Neither should athletes playing for college-sponsored teams.

So pay the players. Pay them what the market will bear—maybe in the low-five-figure range of the salaries now paid to players in the NBA’s Development League. Allow them union representation like NBA and NFL players have. Provide a free college education—a real college education—for players who want one, as a fringe benefit. Players could pursue their degree while they’re playing, during off-seasons, or after their playing careers are done.

And exempt them from having to be students in order to play. Patients at university hospitals are attended by licensed physicians and nurses, not by undergraduate premeds. The programs made possible by “viewers like you” on college-affiliated NPR and PBS stations aren’t produced by film majors.

Still, Wilken’s ruling might prove useful to future–and more bold–rulings that should end this oligopoly.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.