High court sympathetic to college athletes in NCAA dispute

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FILE - In this March 21, 2021, file photo people view the Supreme Court building from behind security fencing on Capitol Hill in Washington after portions of an outer perimeter of fencing were removed overnight to allow public access. A Supreme Court case being argued this week amid March Madness could erode the difference between elite college athletes and professional sports stars. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed sympathetic to college athletes in a dispute with the NCAA over rules limiting their education-related compensation.

With the March Madness basketball tournament in its final stages, the high court heard arguments in a case about how colleges can reward athletes who play Division I basketball and football. Under current NCAA rules, students cannot be paid, and the scholarship money colleges can offer is capped at the cost of attending the school. The NCAA defends its rules as necessary to preserve the amateur nature of college sports.

But the former athletes who brought the case, including former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, say the NCAA’s rules are unfair and violate federal antitrust law designed to promote competition.

The case is not about whether students can be paid salaries. Instead, the outcome will help determine whether schools can offer athletes tens of thousands of dollars in education benefits for things such as computers, graduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad and internships.

During an hour and a half of arguments conducted by phone because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were both liberal and conservative justices who sounded supportive to the athletes' case.

Justice Elena Kagan suggested that what was going on sounded a lot like price fixing. "Schools that are naturally competitors ... have all gotten together in an organization,” she said, and used their power to “fix athletic salaries at extremely low levels.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh agreed, saying "antitrust laws should not be a cover for exploitation of the student-athletes." He told a lawyer for the NCAA that “it does seem ... schools are conspiring with competitors ... to pay no salaries for the workers who are making the schools billions of dollars."

The NCAA's argument that what makes college sports distinctive is that players are not paid got a cool reception from Justice Samuel Alito. He said athletes “get lower admission standards” and “tuition, room and board, and other things.” "That’s a form of pay,” he said, adding that the question is “the form in which they’re going to be paid and how much.”