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In A Narrow Ruling, The Supreme Court Sides With NCAA Athletes


Martin Jenkins played football at Clemson University in South Carolina. Back when he was a student, he sued the NCAA, saying he was forced to put football ahead of his studies. And then yesterday, after the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA cannot set limits for something called enhanced education-related benefits, he talked to our colleagues on All Things Considered.


MARTIN JENKINS: Going out and playing and seeing your name on these commercials and on these massive games where you know a bunch of revenue is being generated and then going back to the dorm later after the game or the next day and not necessarily being able to afford a great meal to, you know, replenish your body or, you know, something basically as simple as that.

KING: Ramogi Huma also played college football for UCLA. He founded the National College Players Association, which is an advocacy group for student-athletes. Our co-host Rachel talked to him yesterday.

RAMOGI HUMA: I'm just excited. You know, I think this is a lot of validation for so many people who have fought for college athletes to have equal rights, which includes equal rights under antitrust laws, meaning the NCAA has no right to act like it's above the law and cap players' earnings. And so a 9-0 decision is more than I thought would happen, but very happy. Unanimous decision that - I think that's going to weigh heavily.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: I'm going to talk about those implications in a moment. But can I ask you to explain how these restrictions on benefits have affected student-athletes?

HUMA: This case in particular is a reflection of the NCAA's price fix. So a school doesn't even have the option to pay players any kind of compensation, not one penny of what the players generate. And there are a lot of athletes from low-income homes, predominately Black athletes in the revenue sports in particular, that have been harmed over the years because of this, they - who would have surely gotten more money and been in a better position to graduate, complete their degree, to set themselves up more securely financially, which is what every student wants to do when they go to college. So they've been exploiting college athletes for generations and generations, and today's a major step toward some relief.

MARTIN: I may be putting you on the spot, but is there one story you could relay, one anecdote that illustrates this?

HUMA: Yeah. You know, actually, it was with my former teammate. He was an all-American linebacker. That's the reason why I started the organization. He was broke and hungry - scholarship checks - because the NCAA's low cap on compensation wasn't enough for many players to even have food. Even to this day, you talk to players, and a lot of players, you know, they don't get enough for food. And he was on a radio show, kind of like this, talking about how tough it was to get by. And someone left groceries anonymously on his doorstep, and the NCAA punished him. They suspended him. He didn't even know the groceries were left on his doorstep, didn't know his roommate had taken the groceries in. But it didn't matter to the NCAA. But he was from a low-income background. They're selling his jersey in the store. And the NCAA says, well, we'd rather have you hungry than to have any groceries because of our rules.

And really, you know, that was kind of the catalyst of starting this organization. And we played a role in actually bringing this lawsuit forward. So it's been a long time coming.

MARTIN: The NCAA has argued that by giving students even these non-cash benefits, you know, in the form of scholarships or laptops or whatever, that somehow that was undermining their status as amateur athletes and that that in turn was going to diminish fan enthusiasm. The court dismissed this outright, but I'd like your response to that argument, too.

HUMA: Well, it's a ridiculous argument. First of all, if you look at the polling nowadays, most Americans believe college athletes should actually share in the revenue that they produce. So most Americans support college athletes being paid. And the idea that amateurism is popular is ridiculous. The NCAA's changed its notion of amateurism every time they lose a court case. You know, each time they say, well, if players get a stipend, it would be the ruination of college sports, and amateurism will fall, and the whole thing will fall apart. Well, we won stipends in the previous lawsuit, and nothing fell apart. The fans didn't even notice or didn't care. You know, name, image and likeness - said the same thing. You know, the sky is going to fall. And now we have 20 states passing it. Everyone agrees that it should happen, and the sky won't fall.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the changes, especially when you say other opportunities. I mean, what could be the - further implications for this decision? I mean, I just want to point out that Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote his own concurrence to the court's decision, saying that they should have gone further. He wrote, quote, "Traditions alone cannot justify the NCAA's decision to build a massive money-raising enterprise on the backs of student-athletes who are not fairly compensated. The NCAA is not above the law."

I mean, do you see future litigation that could change things even more substantively for student-athletes?

HUMA: Sure. I mean, first of all, he's 100% right. And just to be clear, what today's ruling did is it allowed schools to pay about $6,000 per year in education-related compensation if they want to as an option. But it didn't go beyond that. It didn't say colleges and the conferences can determine what pay beyond that to be decided. So that - it didn't go quite far enough. But, you know, a couple of things - yes, it opens the door for additional litigation to make the challenge to completely eliminate the NCAA's price-fixing scheme and allow most likely conferences to determine on their own without colluding, without getting together and breaking the law to determine what is fair for college athletes. We also have a bill that we're sponsoring in California that would actually ensure that every college athlete in California receives fair market value. Now, most of the athletes do already with the exception of the predominately Black sports, which is football and basketball. So there's definitely a racial justice element. There's definitely a way to get compensation to college athletes through state law. I think that's the most practical avenue. And we'll see how it goes. We have this bill that will be heard in January.

MARTIN: Well, we appreciate you taking the time. Ramogi Huma, a former football player for UCLA and the founder of the advocacy group for student athletes called the National College Players Association.

Thank you so much for your time.

HUMA: Sure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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