NCAA President Mark Emmert says a judge's recent ruling in a federal antitrust lawsuit again reinforced that college athletes should be treated as students, not employees.
Emmert spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the site of the men's basketball Final Four, making his first public comments since last month's decision in the so-called Alston.
Judge Claudia Wilken ruled the Indianapolis-based NCAA did violate antitrust laws and cannot prohibit schools from providing more benefits to athletes as long as they are tethered to education.
"There were also components of that ruling that reinforced what a number of judges and administrative court proceedings have reinforced and that is that college sports is about student-athletes playing student-athletes not employees playing employees," Emmert said. "And the fact that, once again, another federal decision has come down reinforcing the fundamentals of what college sport is about, we're very pleased with that. And the way that she wrote what could and could not be prohibited by the NCAA is not in any way fundamentally inconsistent with what we've been doing for about a decade now."
In recent years, NCAA member schools have passed legislation permitting an increase in the value of an athletic scholarship by as much as several thousand dollars to include the federal cost of attendance. Also, schools are now allowed to provide athletes with unlimited meals and guaranteed four-year scholarships.
The plaintiffs argued in the Alston case that implementation of cost-of-attendance stipends and other rewards to players for participation such as bowl gifts and championship rings prove paying athletes even more would not hurt college sports.
Plaintiffs in the Alston case had sought to have all NCAA rules capping compensation struck down. They wanted conferences to set standards for compensation in the hope of creating a market in which schools compete for talent at the highest levels of football and men's and women's basketball.
Even though Wilken's ruling fell well short of that, plaintiffs' attorneys have celebrated it. They called it another step toward unraveling the NCAA's definition of amateurism, which they consider unjust and arbitrary. In 2014, Wilken ruled against the NCAA in an antitrust lawsuit brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon. He claimed the NCAA and conferences inappropriately used the names, images and likenesses of college athletes without compensation.
Much like the Alston case, the NCAA came away from O'Bannon with its model of amateurism basically intact.
And as it did in O'Bannon, the NCAA is appealing Wilken's latest ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court.
"We don't like the notion that we're in violation of antitrust laws," Emmert said.
Emmert added the association does not believe the courts should decide what qualifies as a benefit tethered to education.
"We just find that an unworkable proposal that anytime you want to have a discussion over whether or not something is or isn't tethered education we have to go back to a judge and have that debate and discussion. That just seems inherently inappropriate and not an appropriate role for the judiciary, but one that does fit the role of the NCAA," Emmert said.
Wilken cited things such as computers, scientific equipment and musical instrument as benefits tethered to education. Emmert said it is already within NCAA rules for schools to provide the "vast majority" of the items to college athletes.
"We provide around $100 million a year to schools to support student-athletes through student-support fund programs for precisely that purpose," he said.
Wilken also cited post-graduate scholarships as benefits that should be permissible.
As with the introduction of any new benefit, there is concern among NCAA membership for potential corruption.
"You know we have schools competing now on who can do the best gold-plated locker room? You know, who can do the best recreational facilities?" Emmert said. "Having them compete over who can provide the best educational experience … is an inherently good thing, not a bad thing from my point of view."