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How the latest Supreme Court ruling could impact the student athlete compensation battle

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered a blow to the NCAA as the justices sided with former college athletes in a dispute over compensation. While the unanimous ruling was limited to education-related benefits, like postgraduate scholarships and paying for computers or tutoring, it could add to the momentum for greater compensation for college athletes. John Yang explores.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Supreme Court today delivered a blow to the NCAA, as the justices sided with former college athletes in a dispute over compensation.

    John Yang has more on the ruling.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, today's unanimous ruling was limited to education-related benefits, things like post-graduate scholarships and paying for computers or tutoring. But it could add to the momentum for greater compensation for college athletes.

    Marcia Coyle is the chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal." And N. Jeremi Duru teaches sports law at American University Law School.

    Welcome to you both.

    Jeremi, let me start with you. This push for compensation — or the debate over compensation for athletes has been going on for some time now. How does this decision today fit into the context of that ongoing debate?

  • N. Jeremi Duru, American University Law School:

    Well, John, it is another skirmish in, as you put it, a long battle.

    A century ago, college athletics was a circumstance in which you had athletes who were truly student athletes who were receiving nothing for their work. And you had very little in the way of industry around the work, or around the playing, around the game.

    But what we have seen over the course of a decade is that an industry has grown up around the college sports. So, you have billion-dollar broadcasting deals and million-dollar salaries for coaches conference commissioners. And student athletes are restricted from getting compensation.

    And they have been arguing for the last several decades, we would like our piece of the pie. And they have been bringing lawsuits under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, antitrust suits. And they have, for the most part, been unsuccessful.

    And this is a win for them. And so it adds a chapter that seems to be suggesting we're moving toward a world in which student athlete activists are going to be getting the upper hand.

  • John Yang:

    And, Marcia, what did the court say today — or, actually, what — maybe more to the point, what did they not say about this broader question of compensation for student athletes?

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal": Well, basically, John, the court held that a lower court had properly analyzed the anti-competitive effect of the NCAA's restrictions on these educated-related benefits, and an agreed with the lower courts, sort of, first of all, that they violated the federal antitrust laws, but also that the lower court had crafted a significantly narrower rule on what benefits could be given and still maintain the pro-competitive effect that the NCAA is trying to achieve here.

    It was the second part of the decision. The court also had to decide what kind of review to give under antitrust laws. And, again, it rejected the NCAA's request that it do a very quick look at its rules, very deferential to the NCAA, and that the court felt was akin to the NCAA looking for immunity from federal antitrust laws.

  • John Yang:

    And one justice, Marcia, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, wrote a concurring opinion for himself only. But he wanted to go much farther. He talked about going beyond this narrow ruling.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Justice Kavanaugh said he agreed with everything in the court's opinion, but he was writing separately, he said, in order to express his belief that the remaining compensation restrictions on student athletes also posed antitrust problems.

    And he gave some examples of other businesses that probably would not survive antitrust scrutiny if they operated in the same way.

  • John Yang:

    Just to read a little bit from that concurrence, he said: "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."

    Jeremi Duru, he also suggested that this could be remedied through legislation. It could be remedied, even, he said, through collective bargaining. Do you think that the NCAA is going to try to in a way get ahead of this? Are they going to start looking at their rules in light of this?

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    Yes, I think that's a strong possibility.

    I think you just mentioned collective bargaining. That, of course, presumes that the student athletes are deemed to be workers or laborers. And going to the point that Marcia made earlier, indeed, Justice Kavanaugh, concurring — wasn't the majority opinion — but concurring, analogized student athletes to restaurant workers, to law firm workers, to hospital workers.

    It's clear that Kavanaugh is almost — is throwing out a signal that, hey, we need to analyze these questions as if these student athletes are employees. And if we view these student athletes as employees, it totally changes the game.

    All sorts of legislation now applies to them, and the construct of their relationship with the NCAA will have to change. And so I think, particularly because of Justice Kavanaugh's concurrence, we may see the NCAA working hard hustling to reform their approach, such that they're not the subject of lawsuits that deem these student athletes as employees going forward.

  • John Yang:

    And, Jeremi Duru, there's already some motion — movement on that. In the next couple of weeks, on July 1, I believe, five state laws go into effect saying that student athletes can profit or can get money from their fame.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    Yes, that's right, name, image and likeness state statutes.

    Basically, states are saying that the NCAA cannot prohibit student athletes from making money off of their name, image and likeness, off of their fame. There are other states where there's legislation in the works. There's federal legislation in the works to this effect. And the NCAA is working to create its rules that it hopes will survive scrutiny under these statutes.

    So, without question, that's in the work. But an important distinction is, none of the NIL legislation deems these student athletes as employees or workers. Kavanaugh is taking us a step further there. If indeed they are deemed workers, then the compensation they will be entitled to will go far beyond with the NIL legislation will require.

  • John Yang:

    NIL, name, image, likeness.

    Jeremi Duru of American University Law School, thank you very much.

    And, as always, Marcia Coyle on all things Supreme Court, we thank you. And I'm sure we're going to — we will talk to you again later in the week.

  • N. Jeremi Duru:

    Thank you.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Thanks, John.

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