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‘It’s a new age’: Supreme Court sides with college athletes in decision that strikes at the NCAA’s definition of amateurism

The Supreme Court on Monday sided unanimously with a group of current and former athletes who said the NCAA was violating federal antitrust law by limiting student-athlete compensation to the value of a basic scholarship.

The decision was narrow in scope but clears the way for approximately 176,000 student-athletes across more than 350 schools to receive benefits such as free laptops, tutoring and post-graduate internships. And while the ruling doesn’t specifically touch on pay for on-field participation, legal experts described it as chipping away at the NCAA’s longstanding definition of amateurism as the organization annually collects over $1 billion from college athletics.

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Many states, including Maryland, have also passed laws granting college athletes the right to profit off their names, images and likenesses. With the first of those NIL laws set to take effect next month and the NCAA under pressure to come up with a comprehensive policy addressing the issue, there’s a sense that the tide has turned powerfully in the favor of athlete rights.

“It’s a new age that’s been decades in the making,” said Julie Sommer, a Seattle-based attorney and former All-American swimmer at the University of Texas who has advocated for student-athlete rights. “The NCAA has really had to be dragged into this new age, pouring hundreds of millions into court cases fighting college athletes instead of innovating. This is going to force that.”

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There’s value in the longstanding traditions of college sports, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion on NCAA v. Alston, but not so much that the NCAA should be “above the law.”

“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,” he wrote. “And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.”

The NCAA responded to the developments with a statement Monday, writing the decision preserved a lower-court ruling against the organization but “also reaffirms the NCAA’s authority to adopt reasonable rules and repeatedly notes that the NCAA remains free to articulate what are and are not truly educational benefits, consistent with the NCAA’s mission to support student-athletes.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert added that the organization “remains committed to supporting NIL benefits for student-athletes” and “working with Congress to chart a path forward, which is a point the Supreme Court expressly stated in its ruling.”

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Domonique Foxworth, who played at Maryland from 2001-05, was a freshman football player when, he says, the basic inequality of his situation hit home.

The Terrapins had just earned a surprise trip to the Orange Bowl, and in the jubilation that abounded, players received some commemorative apparel as reward. Meanwhile, their coaches received contract extensions and a sponsorship deal with a local Cadillac merchant.

“The fantasy was snatched from me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Whatever just happened here was incredibly valuable, and we got a sack of sweatshirts.’”

Foxworth, who also played professionally for the Ravens and went on to serve as president of the NFL Players Association, recalled this memory Monday to illustrate the cautious optimism he felt after the Supreme Court issued its decision.

“There’s both an ‘about time’ feeling and a sense of, ‘Let’s not get too happy,’ ” Foxworth said. “I’m happy for today. I think the horizon looks better than it has in the past. But that doesn’t mean I’m confident we’re going to rip off a slew of fair decisions that will land athletes in a position where they’re treated like employees.”

Though Justice Neil Gorsuch deliberately avoided a sweeping assessment of amateurism in his ruling opinion, some advocates saw Kavanaugh’s concurring language as an invitation to future lawsuits challenging the NCAA’s business model.

“I think Kavanaugh really made a point of making a broader statement about the NCAA and the entire notion of amateurism,” Sommer said. “I think the NCAA’s unanimous loss shows how their failed strategy has only hurt college athletes.”

Other athlete advocates described the anti-trust decision as a “blunt instrument” to force change and said the real work would have to come from college presidents and conference commissioners as they reimagine the benefits model for student-athletes.

“The decision is very powerful in that it was a unanimous decision and the takeaway is that the status quo cannot continue,” said Amy Privette Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which has long pushed for reform. “Those leaders will need to take necessary actions to evolve the model instead of waiting on more lawsuits and actions by lawmakers.”

UMBC athletic director Brian Barrio called the court’s decision “narrow” on its surface and something he wasn’t concerned about in the immediate future.

“The reality is: All that stuff’s already permissible, one way or another. Our rules have been so permissive since 2014,” he said, referencing the O’Bannon v. NCAA case, in which a federal court ruled the NCAA’s regulations limiting athlete pay solely to scholarships and their cost of attendance was illegal on antitrust grounds. The Supreme Court in 2016 declined to review the case.

Barrio was concerned, however, about Kavanaugh’s comments, which he viewed as laying the groundwork for the dismantling of the NCAA’s model of amateurism as the organization attempts to pass NIL rules.

“This ruling, to me, doesn’t change anything about the way we do business,” Barrio said in a phone interview Monday. “It just portends poorly for the future, I think.

“It’s just a shame that the NCAA didn’t find a way to address those problems in the last 20 years and instead let our whole model get thrown out. And that looks like where we’re headed. And it’s our own fault. It’s absolutely our own fault.”

Towson athletic director Tim Leonard echoed Barrio’s sentiments regarding the murky future of the amateurism model. He said his university has generally worked to provide student-athletes with the academic resources they need but added the new ruling may apply “significant pressure on a budget that’s already pushed to the limits” for many of the country’s smaller athletic departments.

The ruling does not affect athletes at service academies such as Navy, Air Force and Army because students there are paid a monthly stipend by the federal government.

Sommer said she expected the ruling to prompt rapid action on a NIL policy, possibly as soon as this week, when the NCAA Council is scheduled to meet. “I think they were waiting on this decision, to read the tea leaves,” she said.

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A new policy would need approval from the NCAA Board of Governors, which is scheduled to meet on June 28, just three days before NIL laws will take effect in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas. (The NIL portion of Maryland’s law will take effect July 1, 2023.)

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NCAA officials had hoped Congress would pass a federal law before July 1 of this year, but Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who has spearheaded the legislative effort, recently said that timeline was impractical.

Foxworth said NIL rights are fine but should not be seen as a substitute for salaries, which weren’t part of the Supreme Court case.

The economic injustice facing college athletes seems more stark to him now than it did when he was at Maryland, he said. His work with the NFLPA taught him how much revenue was at stake and hammered home the degree to which young, unsalaried Black athletes are sacrificing their bodies to bolster the bank accounts of coaches and executives.

“It’s a smaller professional league,” he said of college football. “It’s the second-most profitable football league in the richest country in the world. It’s absurd to think about how much money is generated, and where does it go?”

Baltimore Sun Media reporter Bill Wagner contributed to this article.

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