Student-Athletes Score in NCAA Compensation Trial

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A federal judge ruled Friday that the NCAA cannot limit education-related compensation for student-athletes playing Division I men’s or women’s basketball, or those who compete in Bowl Subdivision football. 

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s 104-page report concluded that athletes may receive scholarships to complete undergraduate or graduate degrees at any school, as well as cash or cash-equivalent awards based on academics or graduation.

Wilken also ruled that the NCAA can continue to limit compensation and benefits that are unrelated to education and said the association has the right to adopt a definition of compensation and benefits that are "related to education."

The decision was a partial win for the plaintiffs, a class of athletes led by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston seeking the right for athletes to receive compensation beyond education-related expenses. However, this was still viewed as a win for student-athletes and as such, the judge ruled that the NCAA would need to pay for the plaintiff's legal fees. 

According to USA Today, the ruling would allow the NCAA to limit "academic or graduation awards of incentives, provided in cash or cash-equivalent" but that limit cannot be "less than the maximum amount of compensation that an individual could receive in an academic school year in participation, championship, or other special achievement awards (combined)."

In her ruling, Wilken noted the "great disparity" between the revenue generated by the NCAA and the "modest benefits" that college athletes obtain for playing sports.

For its part, the NCAA wasn't happy with the ruling. 

"Although the court rejected the plaintiffs' desire for a free market system, we will explore our next steps as appropriate," a statement from the NCAA's chief legal officer, Donald Remy, said in part. "We believe the ruling is inconsistent with the decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in O'Bannon. That decision held that the rules governing college athletics would be better developed outside the courtroom, including rules around the education-related support that schools provide."

Legal analyst Michael McCann notes in a post on the Sports Illustrated website that the new rules would allow schools to compete for recruits in a new way: "by offering athletic scholarships of higher value." These scholarships could actually exceed the traditional "full ride," which currently covers tuition, fees, room, board, course-related books and other expenses up to the value of the full cost of attendance. 

While the ruling would allow schools to exceed the traditional full-ride scholarship, McCann says it's unlikely that many schools will. With only 20 of 350 Division I schools actually turning a profit on their athletics programs, McCann contends that most colleges will likely decline to offer athletic scholarships that exceed current levels.

The ruling is scheduled to take effect in 90 days, but McCann notes that the NCAA will most definitely appeal, meaning a final decision could be delayed months or even years.  

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