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Law Professor Says Supreme Court NCAA Ruling Is Meaningful, But Not Monumental


Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NCAA must allow education-related payments to college athletes. But will it get schools any closer to giving their moneymaking athletes a paycheck? Cardozo Law professor Ekow Yankah thinks paying college athletes as if they are employees will only cause more problems. He joins us now to explain.

Welcome back to the program.

EKOW YANKAH: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So first of all, help us understand this ruling, which I have heard being described as narrow but potentially transformative. What exactly does it say?

YANKAH: I think narrow but potentially transformative is a nice way to put it. The analogy I think of is it's as though you live near a volcano and you feel the ground rumbling. It's not the explosion, but the tremors are meaningful. So what the ruling said is the NCAA cannot put a cap on educational-related expenses and force colleges to just give as much as they want without violating antitrust rules.

CORNISH: Now, this summer, states including Florida, Georgia, I think Alabama, maybe New Mexico - they're going to allow student athletes to profit from their own intellectual property outside of educational institutions, meaning that they can accept money for appearances, autographs - I don't (laughter) - an NFT sale, right? Does this ruling influence what's about to happen this summer? How should we think about this going forward?

YANKAH: It doesn't influence it. Well, it's part of a huge stew, right? It's part of the, as we said, the trembling of the ground. And frankly, it makes each time the NCAA digs its heel in the ground seem less and less legally tenable and, frankly, less and less politically tenable. So I don't think the ruling has to be on all fours with name, image and likeness, but it does portend a sort of groundswell. And, of course, some of the language in the case really drew suspicion on the sort of bedrock notion of how much mileage the NCAA can get from their amateurism stance.

CORNISH: Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that, quote, "nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate." I think people are interested in this case so much because of the movement towards having players on the college level get a paycheck, you know, from college institutions. And does this bring us any closer to that? Does this create a new environment or atmosphere that would complicate that goal that some players have?

YANKAH: Yeah. The educational package is an important ruling because of its language. It probably doesn't change things on the ground so much since the wealthiest universities already have much more attractive packages. But the Kavanaugh language is obviously fiery. It's the language that attracted every eyeball. It is in some ways a bring-me-a-case kind of language, right? This is Kavanaugh signaling with no uncertainty where he stands on these positions. And a more sensible NCAA would now start thinking, where is it that we can compromise and find an endgame that we can all live with?

CORNISH: You once said the NCAA often tries to do the vaguely right thing when it has absolutely no other choice. What are the choices it's left with in this moment?

YANKAH: You know, the NCAA - it really is stunning how little they're willing to change. And the NCAA's position that they will stonewall and turn their back and offer words about student athletes being students while rarely actually either supporting student athletes being students or actually enforcing these rules if it can cost them money means that the NCAA has found it has no friends left. It has no friends, in some sense, on the right, who see this as a way of restricting business interest in people's individual liberties. It has no friends on the left, who see this as a matter of individual equity and even, obviously, racial equity. It's hard to find yourself with as few friends as the NCAA has, but it has somehow managed.

CORNISH: That's Ekow Yankah.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

YANKAH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin