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Supreme Court rules for student-athletes in battle over NCAA limits on certain benefits

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday said the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) cannot strictly limit certain benefits for student-athletes as a means of protecting their amateur status, delivering a blow to the behemoth organization as it battles efforts to allow collegiate athletes to receive some financial compensation.

The high court ruled unanimously in favor of the student-athletes, with Justice Neil Gorsuch delivering the opinion. The ruling is the most significant involving antitrust laws and the athletic association to come from the Supreme Court in decades.

Led by former University of West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, the dispute before the court centered around the NCAA’s rules restricting certain academic-related benefits for student-athletes, such as post-graduate scholarships, internships, computers and science equipment. A separate battle is playing out in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill over whether athletes can be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness.

Alston and a group of former Division I men’s and women’s college athletes argued the NCAA’s cap on education-related perks ran afoul of antitrust laws and rejected the organization’s claims that allowing the benefits to flow to athletes would threaten its amateurism model.

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A federal appeals court last year sided with the athletes in the legal battle, ruling the NCAA couldn’t limit the benefits tied to education. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said academic benefits are different from professional salaries, and its decision paved the way for colleges to provide more of these perks to Division I players.

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The NCAA, which rakes in roughly $1.1 billion annually, has for decades relied on a Supreme Court ruling from 1984 to justify its amateurism framework. While the court in that case found the organization violated the Sherman Act with its plan for television rights for college football games, it also said the NCAA “plays a critical role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports” and “needs ample latitude to play that role.”

During oral arguments in late March, as the popular Division I men’s basketball tournament known as March Madness was coming to a close, several of the justices poked holes in the NCAA’s concerns about maintaining students’ amateur status to preserve the integrity of college athletics, given that the organization benefits handsomely from athletes and their low-labor costs.

Antitrust laws, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said, “should not be a cover for exploitation of the student athletes.”

“The schools are conspiring with competitors, agreeing with competitors, I’ll say that, 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,” he said. “That just seems entirely circular and even somewhat disturbing.”

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