Judge finds NCAA guilty of illegally capping athletic scholarship values
West Virginia running back Shawne Alston (20) dives in for a touchdown against Marshall during an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W.Va., Sept. 1, 2012. He was the lead plaintiff in a case against the NCAA over scholarship values. | Christopher Jackson / AP

“A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” Or better yet, “equal pay for equal work.” No matter which one you choose to use, the concept remains the same: Individuals in the same workplace or industry should be paid equally.

Over several decades following the passage of The Equal Pay Act of 1963, the U.S. has slowly, and I mean slowly, made progress in closing the wage disparity gap.

There is, of course, one industry above all others fiercely resisting such change—professional sports.

This year’s International Women’s Day saw all 28 members of the championship-winning U.S. women’s soccer team take legal action against the US Soccer Federation.

Even with a union contract, players continue to report sexual discrimination and wage disparity by the federation, saying they’re paid much less than the mediocre men’s team while working under worse conditions—an all too common theme in professional women’s sports.

Shortly after the women’s soccer team filed their lawsuit Friday, March 8, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California ruled the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its members had violated federal antitrust laws by illegally capping the value of “education benefits” student-athletes are entitled to.

Wilken’s limited decision came short of creating an NCAA free agency market, a goal sought by student-athletes, but opened the possibility of more scholarship money towards postgraduate degrees, undergraduate degrees, and other items considered school supplies.

The plaintiffs in the “Alton case” (In Re: NCAA Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation v. NCAA) had asked for a lifting of all NCAA caps on compensation and a removal of all rules preventing schools from giving athletes in “revenue-generating” sports financial incentives for playing.

Despite the split ruling, student-athletes view it as “monumental.”

“We have proven to the court that the NCAA’s weak justifications for this unfair system are based on a self-serving mythology that does not match the facts,” said Steve Berman, attorney for the plaintiffs. “Today’s ruling will change college sports as we know it, forever.”

In her conclusion, Wilken wrote: “There is a great disparity between the extraordinary revenue that the defendants (NCAA) garner from Division I basketball and FBS football, and the modest benefits that class members (student-athletes) receive in exchange for their participation in these sports relative to the value of their athletic services and contributions they make. Class members contribute their elite talent and time, they limit their educational options, and they risk their long-term health to create enormous financial value for defendants.”

Her opinion goes one step further and lists “education-related” benefits the NCAA and its colleges can’t restrict, including “computers, science equipment, musical instruments, and other tangible items not included in the cost of attendance calculation but nonetheless related to the pursuit of academic studies.”

The lawsuit against the NCAA and participating 11 conferences was first filed by former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston and merged with similar lawsuits.

Plaintiffs argued the NCAA illegally restricts schools from compensating football and basketball players beyond what is covered by scholarship: tuition, room and board, books, plus the cost of attendance stipend to cover incidentals.

Previously, Wilken ruled on an unrelated NCAA lawsuit (O’Bannon) challenging the association’s right use athletes’ images, names, and likenesses commercially without compensation.

In a statement Friday night, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said:

“The court’s decision recognizes that college sports should be played by student-athletes, not by paid professionals. The decision acknowledges that the popularity of college sports stems in part from the fact that these athletes are indeed students, who must not be paid unlimited cash sums unrelated to education. NCAA rules actively provide a pathway for tens of thousands of student-athletes each year to receive a college education debt-free.”

Although the court rejected the plaintiffs’ desire for a free market system, we will explore our next steps as appropriate,” continued Remy. “ 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.”

This ruling could have several other legal implications for college sports programs, as well as creating Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 issues which would require educational institutions to ensure increases in scholarship spending is equitably spent on both male and female athletes.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.