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College athletes are benefiting from new NIL rules, but the fight is far from over

Track & Field: NCAA Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

College athletes are enjoying a winning streak when it comes to benefiting from their work. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of unlimited education-related benefits. On June 30th, the NCAA preempted the passage of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) laws from going into effect in seven states by releasing interim guidelines for all NCAA programs. However, this is still too little, too late in the fight for athlete compensation and the fight is far from over.

The Supreme Court ruling was lauded as a massive victory for college athletes, and in many ways it was. With limitations on education-related benefits being lifted, there are new ways that schools can provide for their athletes. However, the specificity of the ruling could create further legal difficulties for challenges to the NCAA’s model of exploitation. Gabe Feldman, a sports-law professor at Tulane, said the court “had the opportunity to undercut the N.C.A.A.’s broader amateurism argument and chose not to.”

Of course they didn’t. This court has stood in the way of workplace democracy and expanding labor protections in recent years, and it is impossible to view their decision on this case without considering their previous rulings. The Supreme Court’s history of sweeping decisions against labor shows they could have gone further in helping college athletes, but explains why they did not. They executed a perfect legal two-step where they can open the door for education-related benefits, but slam it shut when it comes to recognizing athletes as employees who deserve rights as workers… including rights to unionize.

The ruling by the Supreme Court potentially creates a backdoor means of compensation, but that puts college athletes at risk of scrutiny by the NCAA, which has proven to be incapable of dealing with “improper benefits” occurrences without disproportionately punishing athletes. The ruling also could be used to affirm future rulings that NCAA athletes are in-fact not workers and that the exchange of labor is tied directly and only to education.

Meanwhile, NIL laws being handed down from the states open the door for athletes to independently benefit from their name while successfully putting pressure on the NCAA to create uniform standards for such benefits. However, NIL provisions outsource compensation to third parties and puts the onus of earning anything on the athletes themselves. This not only keeps benefits unregulated and uneven, putting the athlete at risk for further exploitation, but also plain old makes them do more work.

College athletes, as a body of workers, create billions of dollars for schools, leagues, the NCAA, and broadcasters. They are expected not only to play games for massive, paying audiences (in the stadium or on television), but also to dedicate dozens of hours every week to practice, meetings, exercising and studying playbooks/tape for the sake of improving as athletes. This is a full-time job that deserves the legal recognition and compensation as one. This is hardly a new argument, but in light of recent legal developments, it is worth highlighting that athletes should not have to do anything more to be paid for the work they do or recognized as full employees.

The hope should be that all of these laws are going to set off a quick chain reaction that elevates college athletes to the status of being employees and potentially undo the NCAA’s cartel on college sports. However, it is important not to let the momentum die for advocacy and let these half-measures defang the fight for the rights of the athletic workers of college sports.