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Supreme Court Sides With Student-Athletes in NCAA Case, Allowing them Some Compensation

Critics have long called the practice to ban compensation exploitative of disproportionately Black student-athletes.

In a unanimous decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of NCAA athletes, permitting them to be compensated beyond the value of their scholarships, media outlet The Ringer reports.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, only applies to cash for academic-related expenses. In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh went further in his critique of the NCAA’s practice that bans student-athletes from financial compensation under their rule of “amateurism.” This rule, Kavanaugh said, “cannot justify the NCAA’s decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student-athletes who are not fairly compensated. Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate.”

Sports critics have pointed out that the rule particularly exploits Black athletes. Writing for The Undefeated in 2018, Brandi Collins-Dexter wrote, “the student-athletes who generate the most revenue for universities, brands and TV networks are in the football and basketball programs. The vast majority are Black. To maintain ‘amateur status’ and thus be eligible to play, athletes cannot accept any money or gifts off their image or likeness. Because of rigorous practice and game schedules, most cannot work while under scholarship and some may go hungry or have difficulty paying rent. Some, like my father, come from impoverished backgrounds and need income to support their families.”

Collins-Dexter then likens this to the dynamic of plantations, noting the racial power imbalance. “Like modern-day overseers, predominantly white coaches, administrators and white schools reap the rewards of this Black labor. More than 82 percent of college basketball coaches are white, more than 92 percent of FBS head coaches are white, and more than 86 percent of conference commissioners are white. Not a single person of color has served as commissioner for one of the Power Five conferences. In 2015 alone, the top programs made a combined $9.1 billion. The NCAA itself just signed an $8.8 billion TV deal with CBS Sports and Turner to air its March Madness tournament.”

In his concurring opinion, Kavanaugh raised the possibility of broadening the rule to include more than academic-related expenses. “[I]t is not clear how the NCAA can legally defend its remaining compensation rules,” concluding, “The NCAA is not above the law.”