Judge Opens the Door to More Compensation for College Athletes
A federal judge on Friday, in a closely watched case, opened the way for college football and basketball players to receive more compensation than they do now, but narrowly limited the benefits to expenses “related to education.”
The ruling was somewhat of a victory for the athletes but fell well short of their goal of eliminating the N.C.A.A.’s cap on their compensation, which the organization has argued is vital to maintaining a semblance of amateurism in college sports.
In the ruling in Federal District Court in Oakland, Calif., Judge Claudia Wilken determined that amateurism rules barring payment beyond scholarships and certain related costs of education violate antitrust law.
Schools, she said, can compensate athletes for education-related expenses such as postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, and computers and musical instruments. Individual conferences could cap these payments.
But in a ruling of more than 100 pages, Judge Wilken also supported the N.C.A.A.’s claim that students should not become professionals while playing for school teams.
“The court does credit the importance to consumer demand of maintaining a distinction between college sports and professional sports,” she said in Friday’s ruling. “In addition to the fact that college sports are played by students actually attending the college, student-athletes are not paid the very large salaries that characterize the professional sports leagues that many student-athletes aspire to.”
Still, rather than settle the matter, the decision seemed likely to continue the debate. She stayed the ruling pending appeals.
Jeffrey Kessler, a prominent sports lawyer who represented the college athletes, a group of football and basketball players, called the ruling a win, while acknowledging that it stopped short of his clients’ full goals.
“It’s just going be a big step forward, and not the full bringing down of the edifice,” he said.
The ruling, he added, “will create a whole litany of benefits for the athletes.”
“And as I say, that’s terrific,” he continued. “We had hoped we could get an even greater opening of the market. But as I said, one step at a time.”
In a statement, the N.C.A.A.’s counsel, Donald Remy, said the association would “explore our next steps.” In tightly limiting her ruling, he said, the judge clearly acknowledged that “college sports should be played by student-athletes, not by paid professionals.”
“The decision,” he added, “acknowledges that the popularity of college sports stems in part from the fact that these athletes are indeed students, who must not be paid unlimited cash sums unrelated to education.” He also noted that “the court rejected the plaintiffs’ desire for a free-market system.”
Several years ago, a federal appeals court, in overturning Judge Wilken in a previous case, allowed college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, images and likenesses in video games and other media, but limited the amounts.
In a sign of her wrestling with the issue, Judge Wilken signaled she might endorse another way, in which the N.C.A.A. might allow colleges to reward athletes’ academic progress financially, up to the value currently permitted for performance-related bonuses. (For instance, the N.C.A.A. allows championship rings worth no more than a few hundred dollars each.) This, Mr. Kessler suggested, could be a way to annually get thousands of dollars more to athletes.
The players had asked Judge Wilken to bar the N.C.A.A. from restricting pay to athletes outright, letting individual conferences set any limits. Failing that, they wanted her to uncap certain bonuses that athletes are allowed to be paid.
Judge Wilken rebuffed these requests.
She did so while brushing aside many of the college sports establishment’s cherished arguments in favor of amateurism. The notion that paying college athletes more decreases demand for college sports, she said, was belied by the plaintiffs’ expert testimony as well as the fact that college athletes have been paid thousands of dollars more in the past few years — partly thanks to her ruling in the previous case — without affecting ratings and interest.
She also acknowledged the stark economic reality that advocates for players frequently cite: that “the extraordinary revenues that defendants derive from these sports” demonstrate that capping players’ compensation at scholarships and related costs “is not commensurate with the value that they create.”