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Judge: NCAA Must Defend Athlete Compensation Limits

Jason Scott

A U.S. district court judge has ruled that the NCAA must defend in court the limits on compensation that student-athletes can receive for playing sports.

USA Today reports that Judge Claudia Wilken, who oversaw the Ed O’Bannon trial, handed down the ruling on Wednesday and set a trial for Dec. 3. Plaintiffs in the suit are seeking to block the NCAA and a group of 11 collegiate athletic conferences from limiting the kinds of scholarships student-athletes can receive. The NCAA hopes to limit this kind of compensation to covering the costs of tuition, fees, room, board, books and incidental costs, but the plaintiffs hope for a ruling allowing conferences to set their own compensation rules for Division I men’s and women’s basketball and FBS football.

That could pave the way for student-athletes in these sports to make money on their names, images and likenesses — if a conference allowed it.

The lawsuits stem from cases that were filed separately, one by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston and the other by a group of plaintiffs including former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins, former Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes, and current Wisconsin football player Alec James.

In the O’Bannon antitrust case, Wilken had suggested a possible remedy to the antitrust violation: paying student-athletes up to $5,000 a year, deferred until after the end of a collegiate playing career, in exchange for the school’s use of their names, images and likenesses. On appeal, the 9th circuit court rejected that remedy. However, the door remains open to other possible remedies.

“A ruling on less restrictive alternatives to certain NCAA rules in one case does not bar consideration of different less restrictive alternatives to a different, if overlapping, set of rules challenged in a different case,” Wilken wrote in her 36-page ruling.

Current NCAA rules prohibit schools from reimbursing student-athletes for education-related expenses — like computers, science equipment or musical instruments — that don’t factor into the cost of attendance, but are “nonetheless related to the pursuit of various academic studies.”

Wilken is essentially putting the onus on the NCAA to prove that these kinds of limits provide benefits, and that less restrictive alternatives would be unlikely to achieve the same outcomes. By rejecting many of the justifications the NCAA offered for these limitations, Wilken left the the NCAA with two possible justifications for current rules to pursue at trial: first, that fans are drawn to college football and basketball “in part due to their perception of amateurism,” and second, that “paying student-athletes would detract from the integration of academics and athletics in the campus community.”

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