Supreme Court case could change the nature of college sports

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FILE - In this March 21, 2021, file photo people view the Supreme Court building from behind security fencing on Capitol Hill in Washington after portions of an outer perimeter of fencing were removed overnight to allow public access. A Supreme Court case being argued this week amid March Madness could erode the difference between elite college athletes and professional sports stars. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON – A Supreme Court case being argued this week amid March Madness could erode the difference between elite college athletes and professional sports stars.

If the former college athletes who brought the case win, colleges could end up competing for talented student athletes by offering over-the-top education benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars. And that could change the nature of college sports.

At least that's the fear of the NCAA. But the former athletes who sued say most college athletes will never play professional sports and that the NCAA's rules capping education benefits deprive them of the ability to be rewarded for their athletic talents and hard work. They say the NCAA’s rules are not just unfair but illegal, and they want schools to be able to offer any education benefits they see fit.

“This is letting the schools provide encouragement to be better students and better educated ... in return for what amounts to full-time jobs for the school. What could possibly be wrong with that?” said lawyer Jeffrey L. Kessler in an interview ahead of arguments in the case, which are scheduled for Wednesday.

The former players who brought the case, including former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, have so far won every round. Lower courts agreed that NCAA rules capping the education-related benefits schools can offer Division I men's and women's basketball players and football players violate a federal antitrust law. The narrow ruling still keeps schools from directly paying athletes, but the NCAA says it is a step in that direction.

In an interview, the NCAA's chief legal officer Donald Remy defended the association's rules. He said the Supreme Court has previously found preserving the amateur nature of college sports to be an "appropriate, pro-competitive justification for the restrictions that exist in the system of college athletics."

The NCAA wasn't happy with the outcome the last time its rules were before the Supreme Court. In 1984, the high court rejected NCAA rules restricting the broadcast of college football. The justices' ruling transformed college sports, helping it become the multibillion-dollar business it is today.

This time, the justices will hear arguments by phone as they have been doing for almost a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. And the public can listen live. The justices will almost certainly issue a decision in the case before they leave for their summer break at the end of June.