Final Hearing In The Case That Could Completely Upset The NCAA’s Apple Cart
The final court hearing in the case of Alston v. NCAA is expected to be heard today, December 18, at a federal court in California. The assigned judge, Claudia Wilken, will likely use the appearance of the parties to ask both sides any final open questions before making her ruling in a case that calls for the court to end the NCAA’s restriction on college athletes receiving compensation.
The trial is already over. It was conducted over a span of ten days in September. The NCAA argued very strongly against a ruling that could turn college athletes into quasi-professional athletes, allowing them to be paid in exchange for the services they provide to their respective collegiate institutions.
A claim was made by the NCAA that allowing individual conferences to set subjective ceilings on compensation would kill competitive balance and make events like those surrounding March Madness much less compelling for consumers. Further, the NCAA has rested upon its defining of college athletes as “amateurs,” and the system they compete within as “amateurism,” as foundation for a distinction between non-paid “student athletes” and professional athletes.
What the plaintiffs have brought forth in their claims boils down to an antitrust case against the NCAA under a concept called horizontal price fixing. It is when competitors agree to charge the same price for an item. In the Alston case, the NCAA is charged with showing that its horizontal price fixing — limiting what a college athlete can receive in exchange for his labor — is justified by the benefits to competition resulting therefrom in order to not be deemed illegal. That is why the NCAA has focused on a theory that competitive balance would be killed if conferences could individually set price ceilings.
On the other hand, the plaintiffs had the opportunity to explain whether there is a less restrictive way to accomplish the NCAA’s stated goal.
The plaintiffs have a lofty goal — to get rid of any NCAA rule that fixes or limits compensation or benefits that may be offered to college athletes. Imagine a college sports environment where Alabama could pay its quarterback $1 million or whatever the going rate may be for a blue chip prospect. That is essentially what the plaintiffs would ultimately like to have the court hold.
The NCAA and various schools fear such a situation. For instance, University of Wisconsin Chancellor Rebecca Blank testified at the trial and recently stated that she has “no interest in running professional teams at the University of Wisconsin,” adding that it is “not our mission. That doesn’t relate to our academics.” At the trial, Blank said she was not sure whether Wisconsin would continue to run its sports programs if athletes were paid beyond the cost of attendance.
Judge Wilken could rule on the case today, but it more likely that she takes it under advisement and provides a ruling at a later date. The trial was a bench trial and, as such, Judge Wilken has the final say (until the appellate process begins).
Blank says that if the NCAA loses, the case has the potential of “completely upsetting the apple cart.”