High court hears case on paying NCAA athletes

With the March Madness basketball tournament in its final stages, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case Wendesday about how colleges can reward athletes who play Division I basketball and football. (March 31)

Video Transcript

GABE FELDMAN: - The NCAA, for over 100 years, had an amateurism model. And that amateurism model, although it's evolved over time, the current definition of amateurism is that college athletes cannot be paid based on their athletic ability unrelated to education. So they can receive athletic scholarships, but they can't receive any money on top of that. They can't be paid to play. They can't be paid to come to a school. They can't be paid to do an endorsement deal. Those rules might change a little bit, but right now, that's the system.

SAMUEL ALITO: Really shockingly low graduation rates. Only a tiny percentage ever go on to make any money in professional sports. So the argument is, they are recruiting, they're used up, and then they're cast aside.

GABE FELDMAN: But just look at this year in the middle of the pandemic. While many college students were taking classes remotely and were not back on campus, at FBS in Division I basketball, they were back and playing and traveling across the country. And so there are health and safety risks. There's the potential lack of education. There is also the exploitation angle that they are generating money but not getting a piece of it.

So you put all of that together, and the court wondered whether amateurism was really just serving as a cover for the exploitation of these athletes and whether this model that may have made sense in the early 1900s when there weren't these massive television deals and massive coaching salaries-- whether that model makes sense today when we're seeing billion-dollar television deals.

SETH WAXMAN: The $6,000 a year amounts to $735 million per year that schools have to come up with in addition to the retrospective treble damages awards.

GABE FELDMAN: So the argument that the NCAA makes in a lot of these cases is that if they were required to pay or allowed to pay college football and basketball players, that that would detract from their overall educational mission. It would lead to a race to the bottom in terms of competition for these athletes, and it would also harm college athletics as a whole and that what many universities pride themselves on is what they call broad-based opportunities. It's not just about college football and basketball. It's also about the Olympic sports, swimming and diving and tennis and golf and lacrosse, the sports that don't generate significant amounts of revenue and lose money for the school. And the thought is that the revenue generated by football and basketball is needed to subsidize those sports.

So we'll know more in a couple of months whether this is more of the same for the NCAA, that they'll be able to maintain the status quo, more or less, or whether this is the beginning of the end of amateurism restrictions as we know it, and that maybe in two or three or four or five years, we'll look back and say, I cannot believe those college basketball players used to play for free, and that their payment will be in part because of the outcome in this case.