The NCAA is contesting a lower-court ruling that would allow colleges to offer greater academic-related perks to Division I football and men’s and women’s basketball players, including scholarships for graduate degrees, paid postgraduate internships and computers and other types of equipment related to education.
But in 90 minutes of arguments held via teleconference, justices across the ideological divide grilled the NCAA’s lawyer and repeated criticisms that the organization invokes its defense of amateurism as a way to increase profits while keeping its labor cost low.
“The antitrust laws should not be a cover for exploitation of the student athletes,” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh said.
Justice Elena Kagan was unimpressed when Washington lawyer Seth P. Waxman recounted the organization was created more than 100 years ago to “restore integrity and the social value of college athletics” against the threat of turning it into another version of professional sports.
“You can only ride on the history, I think, Mr. Waxman, for so long,” Kagan said, adding “I guess it doesn’t move me all that much that there’s a history to this if what is going on now is that competitors, as to labor, are combining to fix prices.”
Lawyers for the players and the Justice Department drew the distinction that the case was about opening educational benefits, rather than simply compensating athletes for their play.
But that still worried some justices about increasing the role of the judiciary in deciding what protects amateurism and what compromises it.
“It’s like a game of Jenga,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “You’ve got this nice solid block that protects the sort of product the schools want to provide, and you pull out one log and then another and everything’s fine, then another and another and all of a sudden the whole thing … comes crashing down.”
Justice Stephen G. Breyer worried about the court interfering with a system that has brought “joy” to millions of people.
“This is not an ordinary product … and it’s only partly economic, Breyer said, adding “So I worry a lot about judges getting into the business of deciding how amateur sports should be run.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett was the justice who repeated concerns about “blowing up” the NCAA.
The case is NCAA v. Alston.
Rick Maese contributed to this report.