Former UCLA basketball star and NCAA champion Ed O’Bannon was the lead plaintiff in a 2009 class action lawsuit that was the first serious challenge to the lifeblood of the NCAA’s very existence: all of its players are unpaid amateurs. The case – forever called the “O’Bannon” case – claimed Division I men’s basketball and football players ought to be compensated for the commercial use of their names and likenesses. Both sides appealed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2015 ruling, but on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court denied both petitions, preserving the NCAA’s coveted system of amateurism . . . for now.
The denial leaves in place the lower court’s ruling in favor of O’Bannon, where a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel found that NCAA Rules constitute an unlawful, anti-competitive conspiracy between the NCAA and its 1,000-plus schools. Before the Ninth Circuit heard the case, the District Court ruled that colleges must reward men’s basketball and football players up to $5,000 per year while they are in school for the use of their names, images and likenesses, but two of the three Ninth Circuit judges overturned the payment portion of the ruling.
Paradoxically, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the District Court’s finding that “the N.C.A.A.’s compensation rules were an unlawful restraint of trade,” yet it concluded that preserving amateurism was an important goal and that any compensation athletes might receive had to be related to education. The effect: the NCAA’s system of amateurism escapes unscathed, and players need not be given anything more than tuition, room, and board.
Amateurism is not entirely safe, however. The Ninth Circuit is set to hear another challenge to the entire system in Jenkins v. NCAA, an antitrust suit that claims the NCAA, its conferences, and affiliated schools have unlawfully conspired to cap the value of athletic scholarships to tuition, room, and board. Moreover, the fact that the N.C.A.A. has been found to have violated antitrust law may prove to be helpful for future plaintiffs.