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SCOTUS Should End The NCAA’s Faux Amateurism

Will the Supreme Court case NCAA v. Alston finally lead to players being fairly compensated?
April 1, 2021
SCOTUS Should End The NCAA’s Faux Amateurism
Shawne Alston #20 of the West Virginia Mountaineers celebrates with a teammate after scoring a touchdown against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Point Solutions Stadium on October 29, 2011 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

College athletes contribute to the bottom line of the schools they attend. It is an undeniable fact that they provide a service that generates a lot of income through ticket sales, donors, merch, betting, and advertising. Not to mention the sense of identity and community they command and build on their various playing fields.

But the corrupt NCAA monopsony keeps all the spoils for itself, and once again a case has landed in front of the Supreme Court that challenges the NCAA’s “amateurism” banner which prohibits student-athletes from profiting off their own likeness and gaining financially while acting as representatives of a school.

As we all know, Brett Kavanaugh likes drinking beer and getting paid for services rendered. And if his comments during yesterday’s NCAA v. Alston hearing are any indication of how he will rule, that bro-conservative mindset might at long last help put an end to the NCAA’s predatory faux “amateurism” standard.

The Alston case is rather limited in scope, giving “student-ath-o-letes” the ability to have expenses reimbursed, flexibility on internships, and paltry $5,600 cash payments. But the underlying questions about the nature of amateurism being debated at the Court indicate that it is seen as one step in the inexorable march to fair compensation.

During questioning it was Kavanaugh who summed up the state of affairs best:

Schools are conspiring with competitors to pay no salaries to the workers who are making the schools billions of dollars on the theory that consumers want the schools to pay their workers nothing. That seems entirely circular and even somewhat disturbing.

Check out the big brain on Brett.

Yes it is disturbing! The NCAA’s logic is indeed circular and trying to argue with anyone who supports the continued indentured servitude of college athletes does leave you spinning in circles. For those who support compensating student-athletes one of the most frustrating parts of advocating for it has been the stiff resistance from conservative sports fans who fit the Kavanaugh mold.

The argument for paying college athletes—or at minimum allowing them to sell their names and likenesses for income—is open-and-shut from the free-market perspective. Yet oftentimes it’s the self-appointed defenders of the free market who are arguing that the players should be happy to receive a “free” education and room and board!

Because nothing says unrestricted market competition like supplying institutional housing to underage laborers. And there is definitely no better way for them to enjoy the fruits of their labor than a subsidized meal plan.

During Wednesday’s arguments, the NCAA repeatedly cited the fact that not paying the players is part of their “product differentiation” from professional sports. Here’s the NCAA explaining that defense

[The] survey expert tested people’s reactions to giving [the players] . . . a $10,000 academic award, something like 10 percent of the respondents said that they would be less interested and would watch less.

And here’s Justice Alito proposing a hypothetical based on this argument:

There are a lot of old-time sports fans who are turned off by the enormous salaries earned by professional athletes. So suppose a group said we want to take advantage of this unmet demand . . . [and] cap the salaries of all of our players at 1955 levels, corrected for inflation.

Firstly to all the people who said they would quit watching college sports if the players got a measly $10k bonus for their efforts: get bent.

Honestly, how bitter and lost and uncharitable do you have to be to demand that the people entertaining you be denied a portion of the funds they themselves and their efforts generated for you to enjoy it?

The idea that the high court should allow the NCAA to deny compensation to the workers who are making them billions based on the whims of a bunch of old white guys who like their basketball shorts short and their bounce passes crisp is farcical. 

Last week a marketing platform put out a study of the top college basketball players’ social media earning potential if they were allowed to monetize their names and likenesses.

Interestingly among the top 20 most valuable social accounts were 12 players in the women’s basketball tournament and 8 players in the men’s (which incidentally debunks another of the bad-faith arguments for amateurism: that it would take money away from girls’ athletics).

Louisville freshman Hailey Van Lith’s Instagram alone is worth nearly $1 million. For two weeks during women’s March Madness she and others have been forced to stay in a “bubble” in Texas, where they were given limited food options and access to pretty crappy facilities. On the men’s side, the teams that advance to the Final Four will have been in a slightly posher Indiana bubble for three weeks.

Can anyone say with a straight face that the educational and health interests of the students are being put first? 

Now consider that the games they play in are stopped every four minutes for “TV timeouts” to ensure the advertisers that are paying their schools tens of millions of dollars can sell their wares to the fans. Tens of millions of spectators gamble on who they think will win in the official “Capital One® NCAA® March Madness® Bracket Challenge.” The very best players on the men’s teams are freshmen like Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs, and all of them are going to start preparing for the NBA as soon as the games are over, three years before graduation. 

It is obvious to anyone not poisoned by decades of NCAA propaganda that the current system is nothing but a greedy power play by a bunch of suits who have figured out a way to exploit young workers who overwhelmingly come from poor backgrounds and marginalized communities. 

The NCAA wants us to believe that they are maintaining the charade of amateurism because they care about what’s best for the students and some old fogeys like things the way they were? 

Making that argument with a straight face in front of the Supreme Court takes some real onions. 

Bart Kavanaugh is the type of guy who likes beer and sports and tradition. But if yesterday’s comments are any indication he can see through this nonsense.

Hopefully, he will side with Alston in a majority ruling that can be the first step toward ending the madness.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.