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Are college athletes employees? Supreme Court mulls compensation for student players

College basketball’s “March Madness,” which reaches its crescendo this weekend, reminds us that big-time college athletics can look like big business. As John Yang reports, it was a fitting backdrop Wednesday for a well-timed Supreme Court argument over compensation for college players.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    College basketball's March Madness reminds us that big-time college athletics can look like big business.

    And, as John Yang reports, it is a fitting backdrop for the Supreme Court argument today over compensation for college players.

  • John Yang:

    As the men's and women's college basketball tournaments head to their championship games, the NCAA had a big contest today at the highest court in the land. The case could have tremendous consequences for big-time college basketball and football.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    It's a huge case, without question.

  • John Yang:

    American University law school Professor Jeremi Duru:

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    It's one piece of a much larger puzzle, a bigger battle, one that's been brewing for decades and decades about student athlete rights generally.

  • John Yang:

    In the name of protecting amateurism, the NCAA caps the money schools may offer student athletes.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    And it limits them essentially to the scholarship and to cost of attendance, which is a couple of thousand dollars above the scholarship level for travel and other incidentals.

  • John Yang:

    The college athletes who brought the suit argue that illegally limits competition for their skills, a violation of federal antitrust laws.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    The NCAA kind of fears that idea, because if it's the case that different schools can recruit on different levels with different benefits, then some schools will out recruit other schools. We're talking about non-cash educational benefits that would assist with academic pursuits, like computer equipment or science equipment.

  • John Yang:

    If the athletes win, it could open the door to other compensation.

    Arguing for the NCAA Today, attorney Seth Waxman cited the long history of college athletics.

  • Seth Waxman:

    For more than 100 years, the distinct character of college sports has been that it's played by students who are amateurs, which is to say that they are not paid for their play.

  • John Yang:

    Justices across the ideological spectrum seemed skeptical. Justice Samuel Alito:

  • Justice Samuel Alito:

    But, in fact, they are paid. They get lower admission standards. They get tuition, room and board and other things. That's a form of pay.

  • John Yang:

    Justice Elena Kagan:

  • Justice Elena Kagan:

    You can only ride on the history, I think, Mr. Waxman, for so long. I mean, a great deal has changed since 100 years ago in the way that student athletes are treated.

  • John Yang:

    At the same time, justices seemed worried about where siding with the athletes could lead.

    Chief Justice John Roberts compared to a game of Jenga.

  • Justice John Roberts:

    You have got this nice, solid block that protects the sort of product the schools want to provide, and you pull out one log and then another, and everything's fine, then another and another, and, all of a sudden, the whole thing comes crashing down.

  • John Yang:

    Justice Sonia Sotomayor also expressed concern.

  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor:

    How do we know that we're not just destroying the game as it exists?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The Supreme Court doesn't answer the case for a particular case. It's always got its eye on what may be the next case, what's coming down the road.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

  • Marcia Coyle:

    We actually have on that court a number of sports enthusiasts. I think they're very much aware of the games and how they're played, as well as how the NCAA and the game has changed since the last time the Supreme Court had the NCAA before it, which was 37 years ago.

  • John Yang:

    For years, many college athletes have argued they are essentially employees, spending as much as 40 hours a week on team activities that can generate billions of dollars for universities and athletic conferences.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    Coaches are getting six- and seven-figure salaries, administrators are getting salaries. Conference commissioners are getting salaries. other stakeholders are getting money. And the student athletes themselves, the most indispensable piece of the puzzle, are getting nothing.

  • John Yang:

    In arenas and on social media, players in the men's basketball tournament used the hashtag #notNCAAproperty to protest rules barring them from being paid for the use of their names, images or likenesses on jerseys, video games and product endorsements, a separate issue being fought in state legislatures and in Congress.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    You have got court cases, you have got state legislation, you have got federal legislation, and you have student athlete direct action all serving to push against the NCAA's eligibility limits.

  • John Yang:

    And now a case before the nine referees on the Supreme Court, who will make their call by summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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