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The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the NCAA’s limitations on athlete compensation for educational benefits Monday in a decision expected to bolster athletes’ rights and add financial pressure on athletics departments across Iowa and the nation.
The 9-0 ruling in NCAA v. Alston did not strike the NCAA’s ability to restrict athletes from receiving a salary for competing in their sport, though.
Now athletes can receive additional educational benefits, including graduate scholarships, paid internships and tutoring. Individual schools and conferences still have the ability to limit educational benefits, though, the court ruled.
Unless conference rules state otherwise, the ruling allows schools to provide up to $5,980 per year in education benefits.
“We are definitely getting into a new age of athletes’ rights,” said Mark Conrad, the director of Fordham University’s sports business program.
Conrad and others believe the court ruling could force Iowa and Iowa State to compete in a similar arms race for educational benefits as they have for newer and larger athletics facilities.
Joshua Gordon, a senior instructor of sports business at the University of Oregon, sees different paths for athletics departments to succeed in providing educational benefits.
“If you’re somebody that has resources, one approach might be to outspend everyone,” Gordon said. “If you don’t, you’re going to try to get creative with what that looks like. If you’re really good, you have resources and you do things creatively.”
The spending approach may be easier for some athletics departments than others.
“Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, they have to decide, ‘Geez, can we afford to do that?’” said Matt Mitten, the executive director of Marquette University’s National Sports Law Institute.
Mitten said third parties, like an internship employer, could theoretically provide “unlimited” benefits, potentially leading schools to ask alumni to offer paid internships as a way to entice recruits.
“If you’re willing to hire, we can tell people, ‘Hey, if you come here, you’re going to have a paid internship,’” Mitten said.
Mitten said it’s possible some schools may “abuse” the educational benefits allowed to give maximum compensation to athletes.
“It’s going to raise some pretty interesting questions” about what counts as educational benefits, Mitten said.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said Monday he didn’t know specifics of the ruling but expects it to be among changes to college football that are “for the most part pretty healthy.”
“There's a lot of ambiguity right now,” Ferentz said. “But I think as we move forward, we'll all figure it out, and you know it's a good thing for the for the athletes so that's a positive.”
Monday’s ruling does not directly impact name, image and likeness legislation although it could be a precursor to future Supreme Court cases involving athletes’ rights.
The pressure to spend on educational benefits comes as schools also face pressure to provide services that help athletes profit off their name, image and likeness.
Many states have passed laws giving athletes NIL rights, but a bill in Iowa’s legislature died this spring.
“They’re going to be at a disadvantage,” Conrad said. “It can alter the playing field.”
Justice Brett Kavanaugh was particularly critical of the NCAA in a concurring opinion following the ruling he described as “an important and overdue course correction.”
"The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,“ Kavanaugh wrote. ”All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that ‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks.“
Mitten and others see Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion from the Alston case as an invitation for a case about other NCAA restrictions on athlete compensation.
“That’s pretty much an invitation to plaintiffs’ lawyers to run out and file a lawsuit and say, ‘Hey — NCAA rules that limit the compensation not related to education — that’s also an antitrust violation,” Mitten said.
One way around future lawsuits, Gordon and Conrad said, would be to allow athletes to unionize.
“That would get this whole antitrust issue out of the way because union agreements are not subject to antitrust issues,” Conrad said.
Without unionization, legal experts see more lawsuits like the NCAA v. Alston case looming in the near future.
“The NCAA can continue to play this game where you wait to be sued and have your house redecorated for you,” Gordon said, “or you can get out ahead of it and figure out what renovations you want to make.”
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Gazette reporter Leah Vann and the Associated Press contributed to this report.