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The NCAA’s scholarship rules are now illegal, but players still won’t get paid

The NCAA can no longer prevent schools from capping the educational benefits they give players. But a major court ruling does not require anything else.

NCAA President Mark Emmert News Conference
NCAA president Mark Emmert.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Alston v. NCAA, one of the biggest legal cases against the NCAA ever, got its verdict Friday night. It’s not the earth-shattering shift to college sports’ economic model that some hoped it would be, but it could represent a step forward for player compensation.

The big thing to know: a federal judge in California found the NCAA’s scholarship rules to be illegal, to a point. She ruled that the NCAA itself can’t bar schools from offering players “compensation and benefits related to education” in excess of their scholarship money and cost-of-attendance payments. Those benefits don’t include cash, however. They include things like “computers, science equipment, musical instruments,” and whatever else the courts might decide to count as a non-cash educational benefit.

The ruling doesn’t require conferences or schools to change their rules. It prevents the NCAA from banning such benefits outright, which the court says is an antitrust violation.

This case was the most significant legal challenge to the NCAA’s model of amateurism since Ed O’Bannon’s partially successful attempt ended in 2016.

O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player who noticed his likeness in an EA Sports video game he didn’t get paid for, tried to convince the courts that NCAA schools taking in truckloads of cash without paying players was an antitrust violation.

The courts didn’t agree, and so college athletes still aren’t paid under NCAA rules. But the courts also found that NCAA rules banning schools from offering scholarships worth the full cost of attending the university (beyond just tuition and board) were illegal. Freed up to offer that money, many schools did just to keep up, and now a lot of players are better off.

Alston was an attempt to finish what O’Bannon started. It didn’t do that, but it did make some progress for players.

O’Bannon’s case was about football and men’s basketball players, and what he alleged was illegal was the use those players’ names, images, and likenesses (without payment) while the NCAA and its schools made huge money on TV deals and video games.

The plaintiffs’ argument was the next logical step from the progress O’Bannon made. In that case, judge Claudia Wilken said it was an antitrust violation that NCAA schools couldn’t compete with each other by offering payments up to the cost of attendance.

In this case, the plaintiffs said that when the NCAA only lets schools compete by way of scholarships in general (all with capped values, all somewhat similar) and cost-of-attendance payments, they’re committing the same kind of antitrust violation. Wilken, the same judge from the O’Bannon case, agreed the NCAA’s rules break the law.

But she did not rule that schools had to pay players. She only ruled that the NCAA couldn’t prohibit schools from offering more to players in the form of education-related benefits.

The NCAA made a few points in its defense, which didn’t sway the judge (or probably anyone who was paying attention): a) that players not being paid is a key driver of interest in college sports, and b) that players not being paid better integrates them into their university communities, which improves the quality and value of their education.

Former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston and former Cal basketball player Justine Hartman were the lead plaintiffs together, and the class they led isn’t limited to players in the two big revenue sports. It covers anyone who plays under an athletic scholarship. The defendants were the NCAA and 11 conferences, including all the biggest ones.

Part of this lawsuit had already settled. The NCAA agreed to pay more than $200 million to a group of 40,000 ex-football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball players who didn’t get paid the cost of attendance before NCAA rules changed.

It’s not clear what change will look like, because this ruling doesn’t actually force any conferences or schools to do anything.

The decision invalidates the NCAA’s current cap on what schools can give players in scholarship money. But because the same schools that comprise the NCAA’s decision-making power also make the rules in the conferences, the decision invites conferences to make those rules for themselves. And as with lots of NCAA rule changes, it can be the case that conferences just keep their old rules on the books.

So, some conferences might allow their schools to offer more education-related compensation on top of their scholarships. Others might not.

The NCAA and its conferences have 90 days to comply with the ruling, but that timeline pauses if the NCAA appeals, which it’s already indicated it might. It said in a statement:

Although the court rejected the plaintiffs’ desire for a free market system, we will explore our next steps as appropriate. We believe the ruling is inconsistent with the decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in O’Bannon. That decision held that the rules governing college athletics would be better developed outside the courtroom, including rules around the education-related support that schools provide.”

Change moves slowly. The legal system moves slowly, too. But if this decision becomes settled law, it’ll open the door for players to get a little bit more.