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Supreme Court Arguments May Be Turning Point for N.C.A.A.

“It would be easy for schools to label such internships ‘related to education,’ even if a star athlete was given, say, a six-month ‘internship’ at a sneaker company or auto dealership that paid $500,000,” a brief filed in February said. “But fans, student-athletes and everyone else would recognize the reality: that student-athletes were being paid large sums in cash for their athletic play — with the ‘internships’ a thinly disguised vehicle for funneling them quintessentially professional salaries.”

The Supreme Court last considered how antitrust laws applied to the association in 1984, ruling that its restrictions on television coverage of college football games were unlawful. But the decision, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, included an influential passage on student-athletes.

“The N.C.A.A. plays a critical role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. “There can be no question but that it needs ample latitude to play that role, or that the preservation of the student-athlete in higher education adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics and is entirely consistent with the goals of” the antitrust laws.

The Biden administration filed a brief supporting the athletes in the new case, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, No. 20-512, saying that the Ninth Circuit had struck the right balance.

“Promoting amateurism widens consumer choice, and thereby enhances competition, by maintaining a distinction between college and professional athletics,” the brief said. But “some of the challenged rules did not actually foster consumer demand.”

Besides the coronavirus pandemic, no issue has recently demanded more of the N.C.A.A.’s attention than the rights of student-athletes, especially whether they should be able to profit from their fame. College sports executives have long feared that loosening age-old rules would effectively professionalize students and open a different array of challenges, but they have faced mounting pressure over the past few years from Congress and many of the nation’s statehouses. Most crucially, a Florida law that directly challenges the N.C.A.A.’s policies is scheduled to take effect this summer, and California legislators are considering a proposal to speed up a similar measure there.

Although the N.C.A.A. has vowed to rewrite its rules, it delayed final approval over the winter after the Trump administration’s Justice Department raised misgivings. And Congress has not rushed to give the association the kind of political and legal cover it craves.

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