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NCAA Asks Supreme Court to Reinstate Athletic Scholarship Limits

Oct. 16, 2020, 6:18 PM

The NCAA asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate caps on athletic scholarships that were struck down last year, telling the justices that the association itself, not “one federal judge” engaged in “judicial meddling” and “micromanagement,” should “define the character” of college sports.

The lower court rulings would “turn student-athletes into professionals, eradicating” the “decades-long hallmark of NCAA sports” and inviting “an endless string of antitrust lawsuits” while making “a single judge in California” the “superintendent” of eligibility, the conference says in its Supreme Court petition. “This is not how antitrust law should work, and especially for the NCAA.”

The injunction invalidating the scholarship restrictions took effect in mid-August, after Justice Elena Kagan denied the association’s 11th hour bid for an emergency reprieve. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected a similar request a week earlier.

The Ninth Circuit in May upheld a California federal judge’s decision preserving the ban on outright pay for athletes but invalidating limits on education-related compensation.

The two rulings reflected a middle ground between the athletes’ bid for a free labor market and the NCAA’s insistence that restrictions are the only way to preserve the “amateurism” that differentiates collegiate from professional sports.

In its petition asking the Supreme Court to review and reverse those decisions, the NCAA says they would upend the settled consensus that its amateurism standards are barely a matter of antitrust concern, let alone a violation.

Other federal appeals courts have embraced the view that the rules “should be upheld against antitrust challenge without trial and detailed analysis,” or even fact discovery, according to the petition.

Although the Ninth Circuit accepted the premise that amateurism is a key feature of college sports, it “invented out of thin air” a new definition that turns on whether athlete compensation is “related to education,” the petition says.

That “fictional distinction” will lead to gamesmanship by colleges and endless litigation by athletes, the NCAA argues.

The “related to education” standard “does not meaningfully separate those payments from professional salaries, because that qualification is too capacious to filter out disguised pay-for-play,” the petition says, invoking a hypothetical $500,000 “internship” with Nike. “That is the antithesis of amateurism.”

The NCAA is represented by Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and Wilkinson Walsh LLP. The plaintiffs are represented by Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP, Winston & Strawn LLP, Pearson, Simon & Warshaw LLP, and Pritzker Levine LLP.

The case is Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n v. Alston, U.S., petition for cert. filed 10/15/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mike Leonard in Washington at mleonard@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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