The N.C.A.A.’s tombstone had long ago been prepared. The marble had been polished. The cause of death — consumption — had been engraved. All that had been missing was the expiration date.
It did not come Monday.
When the Supreme Court unanimously upheld N.C.A.A. v. Alston to say the biggest governing body of college sports could not stand in the way of athletes being paid for educational benefits, it provided a number of victories for those who argue that the billion-dollar industry should be dismantled.
The high court made an emphatic declaration that stripped away the cudgel of a 37-year-old decision — made in Board of Regents v. N.C.A.A. — that the association has used to beat back antitrust challenges.
Also, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s restrained opinion was accompanied by a fiery concurrence from Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who characterized the N.C.A.A.’s refusal to share its wealth with players as a textbook case of price-fixing, antitrust behavior.
And yet, if this represents another crack in the foundation of college sports, it is not quite the blow that brings the whole system crashing down.
In fact, the N.C.A.A. is being left by the nine justices with the same power that it walked into court with: it can still make its own rules.
For all the self-inflicted black eyes — from the inequities at the 2021 Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, lax policing in recruiting scandals, and the legislative fiasco around implementing name, image and likeness rights to list a few — the Supreme Court sent the N.C.A.A. away with the same message Congress has delivered on legislation around athlete endorsement deals: go clean up your own mess.
“The courts have said to the N.C.A.A., you’re totally violating antitrust laws but can you just do it less egregiously?” said Andy Schwarz, an economist who testified in support of Shawne Alston and in another influential case on college athletes compensation rights, O’Bannon v. N.C.A.A. “We’re in a spot where N.C.A.A. rules probably violate the law and they’re going to stay on the books for the most part.”
To some degree, the Supreme Court was confined by the narrow scope of a case that both sides had appealed. When Judge Claudia Wilken in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California originally ruled on the case two years ago, she gave Alston, a former running back at West Virginia, a portion of what he had been seeking — removing a cap on compensation for college athletes. Instead, Wilken ruled that the N.C.A.A. could restrict expenses related to athletics, but not those “tethered” to education.
Thus, schools can now offer graduate school scholarships, academic awards and computers, with conferences able to set limits if they choose. For the rare athlete like Myron Rolle, who starred at Florida State, played in the N.F.L. and is now a neurosurgery resident at Harvard Medical School, the new rules could be a boon.
But Len Elmore, a member of the reform-minded Knight Commission on College Athletics, suggested that the spirit of the ruling could be readily exploited.
“Can a school say to a recruit, we’ll get you a job on Wall Street that pays $500,000 if you sign with us?” said Elmore, a lawyer, broadcaster and former N.B.A. player. “Institutional integrity is on the line here.”
Elmore suggested that with the court’s ruling and athletes in at least eight states poised to gain the ability to profit off their fame beginning July 1, major college sports will be operating in a “wild West” environment and that a strong central authority is needed.
“There’s all this chaos and what you need is a sheriff with unfettered authority to make sure there’s reason and law,” Elmore said. “And the N.C.A.A. is not equipped to do that right now.”
It’s hard to ever remember the N.C.A.A. being equipped to operate with a heavy hand. It jumped to attention in 2014 when Shabazz Napier, a guard at Connecticut, told reporters at the Final Four that he went to bed hungry because he didn’t have enough money to feed himself.
Soon, food allowances were bumped up.
But it was hardly a new problem: nearly 20 years earlier, Donnie Edwards, a linebacker at U.C.L.A., was suspended for a game and ordered to pay $150 restitution after an agent left a couple bags of groceries for him.
Neither is it news that women athletes are often treated as afterthoughts compared with the men. But when a video went viral highlighting the differences at the women’s basketball tournament, N.C.A.A. President Mark Emmert leapt to attention and told coaches he recognized the “serious work” needed from his association.
“This is and always will be, until it’s ended, a fiefdom,” said Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive who has become an advocate for player’s rights. “They own the athletes.”
That is why Vaccaro said he was smiling through tears on Monday.
He remembers cases like Jeremy Bloom, an Olympic skier who lost his eligibility to play football at Colorado because he accepted skiing endorsements. And an effort by Northwestern football players to unionize that was struck down. And the hollow victory for Ed O’Bannon, the former U.C.L.A. basketball star who sought to strike down amateurism but settled for requiring the N.C.A.A. to allow schools to put a few more nickels in athletes’ pockets.
“There were big chunks of freedom left open,” Vaccaro, 81, said of the court’s ruling on Monday. “Ninety percent of the public doesn’t know what they didn’t conclude.”
“But what are we going to remember about today?” he added. “One thing that everyone has to acknowledge, even the deniers, is it was 9-0.”