Supreme Court Questions NCAA's Amateurism amid Name, Image, Likeness Bill Debate

Adam WellsMarch 31, 2021

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 21: The NCAA logo is seen on the basket stanchion before the game between the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles and the Florida Gators in the second round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Indiana Farmers Coliseum on March 21, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

For the first time since 1984, the United States Supreme Court got involved in the business of college athletics on Wednesday as part of the opening arguments in the NCAA v. Alston case. 

Per ESPN's Dan Murphy, the Supreme Court questioned the NCAA's definition of amateurism amid the ongoing debate over name, image and likeness rights. 

Murphy noted that Justice Elena Kagan stated that the NCAA has been using amateurism as a way of fixing the price of labor. 

"You can only ride on the history for so long," Kagan said. "A great deal has changed since 100 years ago in the way student-athletes are treated. A great deal has changed [since 1985], let alone 100 years ago. I guess it doesn't move me all that much that there is a history to this."

Despite several justices not being sold on the NCAA's notion of preserving amateurism in sports, Murphy did note there was "concern" that a ruling in this case could result in "a series of lawsuits that steadily chip away at the NCAA's rules until college sports are clearly professional by anyone's definition."

Justice Stephen Breyer argued that changing NCAA amateur rules would place an "administrative burden" on schools across the country to properly implement them. 

The NCAA v. Alston case is the latest step in a legal process that first began in 2009 when former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon filed a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of all Division I football and men's basketball players over compensation for using their name, image and likeness in commercial properties. 

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in 2015 that the NCAA could restrict universities from paying student-athletes "beyond the cost of attendance."

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments in the O'Bannon case in 2016.

Several other lawsuits that challenged the NCAA's rules on amateurism and restricting compensation for student-athletes were combined into a single case, NCAA v. Alston. 

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled in March 2019 that the NCAA couldn't "limit compensation or benefits related to education" in a federal antitrust lawsuit. 

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Wilken's ruling for education-related benefits. The NCAA filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the decision. 

Amid the ongoing debate over NIL rules, there are currently six states that have passed legislation to allow student-athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses.