US Supreme Court backs payments for NCAA student-athletes

Case focused on whether athletes can receive cash or non-cash benefits from schools related to their education

The US Supreme Court ruled on Monday that America's top university athletics body cannot use its monopoly power to block student-athletes from receiving extra benefits for playing sports, eroding its power over the multibillion-dollar college sports industry.

The high court sided unanimously with student-athletes in a narrow case focused on whether they can receive limited cash or non-cash benefits from their schools related to their education, which the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) currently denies them.

While it did not weigh in on whether student-athletes should be able to cash in completely on their performances on football fields and basketball courts, the Supreme Court made it clear it did not accept the NCAA's claim that its strict ban on their earning any money, to retain "amateur" status, was important to the business.

The court called the NCAA an effective monopoly in its control over the lucrative industry of college sports.

"Put simply, this suit involves admitted horizontal price fixing in a market where the defendants exercise monopoly control," wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the opinion.

"No one disputes that the NCAA's restrictions in fact decrease the compensation that student-athletes receive compared to what a competitive market would yield."

The long-brewing case, NCAA v Alston et al, centred on whether student-athletes could receive extra education-related benefits from their sports performances, like additional scholarship payments.

It did not address the hottest topic of college sports – whether the athletes should benefit from their personal images, like sales of shirts with their names, which the universities and the NCAA profit from.

But the court made clear it did not see any justification for such restrictions and said the NCAA could not prove that athletes keeping their amateur status was important to what Judge Gorsuch called its "massive business".

"Those who run this enterprise profit in a different way than the student-athletes whose activities they oversee," he said.

"The president of the NCAA earns nearly $4 million per year. Commissioners of the top conferences take home between $2 to $5 million. And annual salaries for top Division I college football coaches approach $11 million."

While Mr Gorsuch stressed the narrow application of the decision to the case at hand, the ruling appeared to open the gate for a broader challenge to the NCAA's control on how student-athletes can earn money, or share in the profits the NCAA and universities rake in.

"Price-fixing labour is price-fixing labour," Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion.

"The NCAA's business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America," he said.

"All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks' wages on the theory that 'customers prefer' to eat food from low-paid cooks."