Picture the headquarters of a massive company. A business so large that it has been described as “part of the fabric of America”. Just down the street, there is a small town where all the employees of that business live. It has everything a normal town does: housing, dining, shopping, a chapel, a school, and even some recreational facilities. All these employees don’t receive a regular salary. Instead, they’re paid in monopoly money that they can only spend in the town. They’re free to come and go as they please, but they don’t have any real money they can spend in another town, and leaving would mean finding a new job in an entirely new industry. For all intents and purposes, their entire lives are tied to living in that town and following the boss man’s rules. What do you think I’m describing? A company town built by one of the robber barons of old, like Carnegie or Vanderbilt? Well yes, but I’m also describing the other Vanderbilt. College athletic departments have been thriving off this antiquated, exploitative model for decades. And much like those monopolies before it, the NCAA now sits at the mercy of the United States government.
On June 21, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Alston v. NCAA, ruling in favor of Alston. Justice Gorsuch’s opinion was incredibly narrow, as legally it only removes the cap on education-related payments, but that wasn’t the important part. The important part of this case is that the court directly struck down most of the NCAA’s core arguments, the logic they have relied on for decades to preserve their power. You say that amateurism is a core value of college sports? Justice Gorsuch points out that the first-ever college sporting event was sponsored by a railroad company, and that experts from as early as 1929 claimed that college sports were “sodden with the commercial and the material”. He also exposes the history of semi-professional “tramp athletes” that the league has tried so hard to hide. The opinion even strikes down a few defenses stemming from previous SCOTUS rulings. In the Tarkanian case, they ruled that because NCAA membership was voluntary the league had the right to enforce their rules however they pleased. But now they’ve acknowledged that the NCAA is a monopsony, which means that it is the only buyer in the market (as opposed to the more common monopoly, where there is only one seller). “You chose to follow these rules” is no longer a valid argument. But most importantly, they revisited a key aspect of Board of Regents v. NCAA, the one part of the ruling that was in the NCAA’s favor. At the time, Justice Stevens stated that the organization needed “ample latitude” to preserve amateurism. The NCAA took those two words and ran with them, using that simple phrase to justify their existence above the law. But the court finally recognized that phrase for what it was: dicta. This means that it was a throwaway line unrelated to the actual ruling which has no legal bearing whatsoever. After a century of judges ignoring the law in order to preserve the foundation of college sports, SCOTUS blew the entire damn thing up in one day. And apparently, Brett Kavanaugh didn’t think that was enough.
While Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion is essentially just a blog post, I think it will prove much more impactful than the actual ruling. The court kept their decision incredibly narrow. The only concrete change this ruling makes is that schools can spend as much money as they want on “educational expenses” for athletes. And no, schools can’t just claim that anything they want is an educational expense. Justice Gorsuch explicitly stated that the NCAA could pass a “no Lamborghini” rule if they wanted to. But Justice Kavanaugh wasn’t so lenient. He ripped into the very concept of amateurism, pointing out that “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.” He couldn’t create any legal precedent by himself, but he certainly could and did encourage others to do so. His addendum could be effectively summarized as: “We can’t say that the NCAA is legally required to pay players, but if you wanted to sue them for that you’d probably win”. This ruling was not the death of the NCAA, but more so its harbinger. The Supreme Court didn’t pull the trigger, but it cocked the gun.
What’s most fitting about all of this is that it was entirely unnecessary. There was no reason for the NCAA to appeal the original ruling other than pure stubbornness. The original outcome would have cost them exactly $0. But they decided long ago to fight until the death against any kind of change, no matter how small. They’re willing to go to war before giving up even an inch to the athletes they’re exploiting. Now, they’re finally paying for it. Not only did they lose that inch, but they also lost their footing entirely. You see, Ozymandias isn’t just the name of the greatest TV episode of all time, it’s an old sonnet by Percy Shelley about the folly of hubris. How those who wish to make themselves gods are always forgotten; lost to the sands of time.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.“
The NCAA spent decades building their palace. From taking complete control over the member schools to positioning themselves as the guardians of all that is pure and good in sports. They were judge, jury, and executioner. Driven by hubris and greed, they now sit in the same place as all the would-be gods before them. The creators of those Orwellian company towns, the Rockefellers of the world, were never content. Profits had to grow no matter what. But eventually, they crossed a line. Their greed was their downfall, as the government stepped in and tore down what they built. The NCAA was not content with billions of dollars, they had to have absolute control. An insatiable lust for power led them down that same dark path to where they now sit. Soon they will become just like all the rest: a shattered visage lost to the boundless sands of time.