Appeals court upholds ruling that colleges can pay for all NCAA athletes' education expenses

A federal appeals court upheld a ruling Monday that will allow colleges to pay for any education-related expenses for student-athletes in the future.

Judge Claudia Wilken decided in March 2019 that the NCAA rules that limit what athletes can receive from their schools violated antitrust law. Wilken limited her ruling to include only benefits related to education, such as covering the costs of "computers, science equipment, musical instruments" and other similar items. She wrote that the NCAA's unique business model justified some limits.

The NCAA appealed her decision by arguing that its current rules, which allow schools to offer athletes only a scholarship and an additional cost-of-attendance stipend, were allowed under federal law. Monday's ruling against the NCAA from the appeals court marks another significant step in the ongoing debate about fair compensation for college athletes.

"We hoped for a different legal conclusion by the Ninth Circuit," NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. "...We will continue to review the opinion and determine our next steps."

This particular legal battle began in 2014 when former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston filed a lawsuit against the NCAA. Alston and his attorneys argued that NCAA rules that place any limit on compensation that schools could offer to athletes violated antitrust law.

Alston's attorneys asked the appellate court to expand Wilken's initial ruling and allow schools the option to compensate athletes however they wanted, rather than limiting those options to education-related expenses. The trio of appellate judges declined to broaden the scope of Wilken's ruling.

"We believe we had a good legal argument for it, but sometimes progress on difficult things requires you to take one step at a time," said Jeffrey Kessler, one of Alston's attorneys. "You don't get to the end of the road all at once."

Kessler said he was nevertheless "very pleased" with this week's decision to uphold Wilken's ruling. During the legal process, Kessler's group submitted an expert affidavit that claimed that Wilken's decision will help channel at least an additional $100 million in benefits to college athletes on an annual basis in the future.

The NCAA has shifted its amateurism rules several times in the past decade while facing legal challenges. A lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, for example, forced the NCAA to allow schools to pay their athletes a stipend that covered costs of attending the university.

In the past year, the NCAA amateurism model has also faced extensive challenges from state and federal lawmakers. Pressure from politicians pushed the organization to reconsider its rules that prohibit college athletes from making money off of their names, images or likenesses while in school.

The NCAA's board of governors announced last month that it supports the idea of allowing college athletes to accept endorsement money as long as it's able to install "guard rails" that keep a clear distinction between college sports and professional leagues. The working group that created the proposal for these new rules also recommended that the NCAA ask Congress for help in implementing them.

Their request to federal lawmakers included a potential antitrust law exemption that would protect the NCAA from future lawsuits. It's unclear whether the NCAA wants an exemption that would render Alston's case moot, but several politicians have already said they believe it's unlikely that Congress would grant any type of antitrust exemption, especially one that took away any benefits from the athletes.

Advocacy groups such as the National College Players Association say it would be a mistake to grant the NCAA an exemption after federal judges have determined in multiple case that the association is violating antitrust laws.

"Congress should not give a criminal a badge," said Ramogi Huma, the NCPA's founder. "The NCAA must be subject to the law, not be above it."

The NCAA can ask the Supreme Court to review this week's decision in the Alston case as its last attempt to get a different ruling. Remy, the NCAA's chief legal officer, said he believes that the judge's decision is inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court previously declined to hear an appeal on the O'Bannon case. The NCAA said it may offer a more robust response to Monday's decision after fully reviewing what the trio of appellate judges wrote.