Those of us who follow college sports, as well as those of us (far fewer in number) who like to keep track of the goings-on in the U.S. Supreme Court, are already aware that last week the court heard oral arguments in the case of NCAA v. Alston.
On one side of the case is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for most collegiate athletics. Among its other functions (such as running the annual basketball tournament and raking in lots of money) is establishing and enforcing rules for collegiate athletic programs.
And the NCAA has lots of rules. Its rule book, which is available online if anyone cares to look, when printed looks like the U.S. Internal Revenue Code and Regulations.
These rules run the full gamut from how to officiate a football or basketball game, to the number and extent of athletic scholarships, to how coaches may recruit prospective players, to what benefits a student-athlete may receive when he or she is on campus.
This last is the subject of the present lawsuit. The NCAA strictly limits the cash and in-kind benefits a scholarship athlete may receive.
The plaintiffs in the suit presently pending in the Supreme Court are a group of college athletes who challenge those limits as a violation of federal anti-trust laws, which prohibit monopolies and other anti- competitive practices.
Residents of the Tri-Cities will recall that when Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System merged several years ago, they had to qualify for an exemption from the anti-trust laws by obtaining approval of health care regulatory bodies in both Tennessee and Virginia. The Ballad merger has nothing to do with this column other than to remind readers that anti-trust laws, like the NCAA rule book, are complicated and technical.
I’ll return to the case before the court presently. But first let me dive a little deeper into the NCAA and college sports in general. Collegiate athletics are big business.
I’ve already mentioned the basketball tournament, but that’s only the most current example. There are bowl games, championship games, big stadiums selling everything from tickets to hot dogs to socks. Practically all “major” conferences have television contracts, and those in the so-called “Power 5” (the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pacific Twelve) have lucrative deals with cable and network television.
As my examples imply, the financial drivers of this system are men’s basketball and football. Some women’s basketball programs, like Tennessee’s, make money. Most do well to break even. The same is true of baseball. Other men’s and women’s non-revenue sports, like lacrosse, fencing, track and so on, lose money.
What I just wrote is not just true of large state universities like Tennessee and Virginia Tech. It also applies to smaller, lower-budget schools. I have a brother-in-law who recently retired from an administrative position at Western Carolina University.
He told us that WCU, which is hardly a household name in sports, finances its athletics department with football. How? By scheduling games with Clemson, North Carolina and Alabama, which will pay WCU a great deal of money for showing up to get pounded on the field.
Needless to say, colleges make a great deal of money in this system. But what do the student- athletes get? Well, they get their tuition and fees, and room and board, paid. Considering the high cost of higher education these days, that’s not insubstantial. But they don’t get much cash.
They see their college using their names and images to sell tickets. They see their school selling football or basketball jerseys with their numbers printed on them.
But if they ask for a cut of that revenue, the college will tell them, “We can’t do that. It’s against NCAA rules.”
That leads us back to the case before the Supreme Court. They don’t think the system is fair. They think the NCAA game, admittedly “the only game in town,” is rigged and crooked. And that it, as folks say in East Tennessee, is “agin the law.”
Is it? The Supreme Court has not ruled. But the oral arguments last week created a lot of buzz, because the justices — no matter which president appointed them — appeared to be receptive to the plaintiffs’ arguments.
The NCAA defends the system as needed for fair competition among colleges. Yet, when Justice Clarence Thomas asked the plaintiffs’ lawyer about that, the answer was, “It’s not competitive now. Alabama pays its strength coach $700,000 a year.”
What do you say to that? Actually, several things.
But you’ll have to wait for my next column to read them.