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Supreme Court To Hear Case Over NCAA's Limits On Compensation For Student Athletes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will review a case testing whether the NCAA's limits on compensation for student athletes violates the nation's antitrust laws. The court's eventual decision could have enormous consequences for college athletics, as NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The court's unusual excursion into sports law comes amid an increasing national battle between athletes and the schools they play for over player compensation. On one side, the NCAA says it's just trying to protect amateurism. And on the other, players argue that the top athletic teams are operating a system that's a classic restraint of competition in business. At the heart of the case is this question.

GARY ROBERTS: Whether or not these young men and women are employees or are they students?

TOTENBERG: Gary Roberts practiced and taught sports law and antitrust law for more than four decades.

ROBERTS: There's no question that the commercialization of big-time college football and college basketball - particularly men's college basketball - have morphed into a very lucrative business and are taking advantage of students to generate that income. And those students ought to be benefited. And by the way, the majority of those students are African American. And that's an issue that can't be ignored in this discussion either.

TOTENBERG: But at the same time, he notes, the NCAA system has benefited students who have scholarships to play other sports - golf, tennis, water polo. And it has similarly benefited football and basketball players at smaller schools with smaller programs, Division III teams and lots and lots of women's teams.

The case before the Supreme Court involves just 126 teams who play big-time football and basketball. Roberts and other sports law experts say the lower courts have left these issues in a legal mess. In the absence of clearly established legal rules governing these problems, some states have enacted tough regulations seeking to protect athletes. California, for instance, passed a law last year effectively requiring schools to allow athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses. After the law was enacted, the NCAA abruptly reversed its long-held opposition to such benefits and said it would issue new policies early next year. Importantly, it has also asked Congress to adopt its position and preempt states like California from enacting tougher laws.

A Supreme Court decision siding with the NCAA would likely fortify the NCAA's effort to maintain tighter restrictions on benefits for big-time college and basketball players. A decision holding that the NCAA has gone too far would likely lead to more benefits for players who - through their hard work on the field, on the basketball court - allow schools to reap billions in TV and other revenue. Some of that revenue, of course, benefits lesser-known sports and players at those schools. But it also benefits coaches and assistant coaches who are paid tens of millions of dollars and allows school to spend millions on mammoth stadiums and lavish locker rooms. Zigzagging through this legal minefield will be difficult for the Supreme Court, to say the least. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DININF ROOMS' "YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.