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The NCAA earned some Supreme Court doubt over its control of student athletes. What now?

The NCAA's restrictions over student athletes' behavior have never seemed fair. But no one knows what happens to college sports if everyone goes pro.
Image: ***BESTPIX*** Rutgers v Houston
Quentin Grimes of the Houston Cougars dunks the ball during the second half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the second round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 21, 2021 in Indianapolis.Jamie Squire / Getty Images

UPDATE (June 21, 2021 10:27 a.m. ET): The Supreme Court ruled on June 21 that the NCAA could not restrict education-related expenses paid to student athletes — such as book stipends, laptops and paid internships — under U.S. antitrust law. A concurrence from Justice Brett Kavanaugh stated his opinion that "the NCAA's remaining compensation rules also raise serious questions under the antitrust laws."

If you have been eager to see the NCAA — the cartel that runs college sports, raking in billions of dollars a year on the backs of unpaid athletes — dragged through the coals for your amusement, Wednesday morning was the culmination of all you’ve been waiting for. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case to decide whether the NCAA was, in its attempts to put a cap on education-related expenses paid to “student-athletes,” violating antitrust law.

And so, for about an hour or so, the justices just took turns rhetorically punching the NCAA in the face.

They were some bipartisan haymakers: Justice Elena Kagan called the group price-fixers, while Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the NCAA's practices “disturbing.” Even Justice Clarence Thomas — who rarely speaks during oral arguments — got in on the fun, noting the obvious disparity in athlete “salaries” in terms of money for books or musical instruments being frozen while coaches’ salaries continue to enter the stratosphere. (The single highest-paid public employee in 29 states in 2018 was each state’s public university football coach.)

As someone who has followed the NCAA’s foibles and its desperate attempts to keep control of an athletic system that has outgrown it — even though it is finally steering toward justice for what remains essentially free labor — it was deeply satisfying, even cathartic, to witness the lambasting. The NCAA has hidden from accountability for decades now, so to see it called out by the highest court in the land felt like some chickens at last coming home to roost. It's had this coming for a while.

Can you properly compensate the student-athletes without destroying what makes college sports unique entirely?

But in addition to being someone who is elated to see the NCAA body-slammed, I am also someone who, well, who loves college sports. I love the Final Four (which commences in Indianapolis on Saturday), and I love college football, and I love the teams of Illinois — my alma mater (go Illini!) — and I love filling out brackets, and I love silly mascots, and I love watching a player enter a stadium as a callow, scared freshman and graduate as a mature senior leader. I think the institution of college sports is inherently flawed and the NCAA just makes those flaws worse, all in the goal of self-enrichment, but I also would not want college sports to just go away.

That’s the fundamental question behind every reform effort, and it’s one the NCAA has wielded like a cudgel: We’re bad, but isn’t having nothing worse? And it is very much worth noting that, after all that pummeling of the NCAA the justices did, many of them admitted they’d be pretty sad if college sports vanished, too.

This, as well, came from both sides of the aisle.

Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that college sports are not the same as making widgets. “This is not an ordinary product,” Breyer said. “This is an effort to bring into the world something that’s brought joy and all kinds of things to millions. ... I worry a lot about judges getting into the business of deciding how amateur sports should be run.”

Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “How do we know that we’re not just destroying the game as it exists? ... Any fix would come after the fact, after the game has been — after amateurism has been destroyed in college sports. How do we ensure that doesn’t happen?”

The NCAA has hidden from accountability for decades now, so to see it called out by the highest court in the land felt like some chickens coming home to roost.

Now, these were all statements made during oral arguments; the justices could just be spitballing. There is no actual judgment expected until at least June. Some experts believe, especially in the wake of these oral arguments, that the court may rule against the NCAA, though no one really knows.

But the debate does speak to the conflict inherent in any discussion of the NCAA and college athletics: Is it actually possible to make these endeavors truly just and fair? Can you properly compensate the student-athletes without destroying what makes college sports unique entirely?

There is an argument — a good one — that any industry that cannot survive if it’s required to properly pay its employees shouldn’t have any business existing in the first place. That’s certainly the argument the court seemed to be making in the first half of its questioning.

But is the world really better off without college sports? The second half of the court’s questioning sure seemed to express considerable worry about that very thing — and the justices certainly didn’t hear any compelling plan on what would replace the current system if they ripped it up. How could they? The sports world has been trying to figure one out for years.

The NCAA has been fighting against any changes, of course, but it’s also possible that there just isn’t an alternative. Laws like California’s pay-for-play, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom while sitting alongside LeBron James, have moved the needle slightly in a different direction, but only slightly. It doesn’t answer all of the fundamental questions like: Do all athletes get paid, even the ones from nonrevenue sports? Who’s in charge of figuring out who gets paid what? How do you even nail down how much money everybody has in the first place?

These are important questions to answer if colleges and universities are going to move to some sort of compensation-based model. But as someone who has been following this his entire career, I have no idea what the answers to these questions are.

The Supreme Court justices didn’t seem to know, either — which is why their vivisection of the NCAA, while quite pleasurable to witness and much deserved, didn’t fix anything and didn’t get us any closer to resolving what’s wrong than we were in the first place. The justices knew it, too. That’s why they were so worried about tearing apart something they confessed to enjoying.

There remains an inherent, perhaps unfixable, problem with college sports: They’re corrupt and wrong and inherently unjust. They are also very fun and people love watching them. I’ve never figured out how to hold both these concepts in my mind at the same time. It’s a relief, then, to see the Supreme Court of the United States have the same problem.