O’Bannon v. NCAA – A Split Decision by the Ninth Circuit

October 9, 2015

By: Paul J. Avery

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its highly anticipated decision in the O’Bannon case on September 30, 2015. This case was an appeal of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California’s decision finding that certain NCAA rules were an unlawful restraint of trade in violation of federal antitrust law. Specifically, the District Court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the NCAA from enforcing rules regarding scholarship caps, and requiring the NCAA to allow member schools to pay deferred compensation to certain student-athletes of up to $5,000 per year of eligibility to compensate them for revenues generated from the use of their names, images and likenesses. The Court of Appeals affirmed the portion of the District Court’s decision regarding scholarship caps and vacated the portion pertaining to deferred compensation. In reaching its decision, the Court of Appeals found that while the NCAA rules in question were procompetitive, they were not exempt from antitrust scrutiny, and were subject to antitrust law’s “Rule of Reason” test. Using this test, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that the NCAA’s amateurism rules had an anticompetitive effect on the college education market. The analysis then turned to the procompetitive justifications for the amateurism rules posited by the NCAA. The Court of Appeals accepted two of the NCAA’s four proffered justifications as identified by the District Court: “integrating academics with athletics” and “preserving the popularity of the NCAA’s product by promoting its current understanding of amateurism.” The Court of Appeals next observed that not all of the NCAA’s compensation rules that restrict the market are necessary to preserve the “character” of collegiate athletics, and moved to consideration of whether there were “substantially less restrictive alternatives” to the NCAA’s compensation rules at issue in this case. The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that permitting institutions to set the grant-in-aid cap at student-athletes’ full cost of attendance was a less restrictive alternative to the NCAA’s current restrictions on compensation. In so doing, the Court of Appeals observed that the NCAA’s current rule “has no relation whatsoever to the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA: by the NCAA’s own standards, student-athletes remain amateurs as long as any money paid to them goes to cover legitimate educational expenses.” However, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the District Court regarding the payment of compensation to student-athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses. According to the Court of Appeals, when the District Court found “that paying student-athletes would promote amateurism as effectively as not paying them,” the District Court “ignored that not paying student-athletes is precisely what makes them amateurs.” (Emphasis in original). The Court of Appeals continued:

The difference between offering student-athletes education-related compensation and offering them cash sums untethered to educational expenses is not minor; it is a quantum leap. Once that line is crossed, we see no basis for returning to a rule of amateurism and no defined stopping point…

To summarize, the Court of Appeals’ decision permits the offering of grants-in-aid up to the full cost of attendance (which, notably, had already been approved by the so-called “autonomy conferences” and was scheduled to take effect on August 1, 2015), but continues to permit the NCAA to enforce its rules prohibiting (among other things) the payment of deferred compensation to student-athletes in the form contemplated by the District Court. At this point, either party could seek review of the decision by the full Court of Appeals (as this decision was rendered by a three judge panel) or seek to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals’ decision is important in that it makes clear that the NCAA’s rules are not exempt from scrutiny under antitrust law, and specifically a “Rule of Reason” analysis. However, the decision regarding deferred compensation signifies a potentially important victory for the NCAA’s tradition and principles of amateurism, and may prove beneficial to the NCAA in its defense of Jenkins v. NCAA and other similar lawsuits. Elizabeth D’Agostino, a 2015 graduate of Albany Law School who is awaiting admission to the New York State bar, contributed to this blog post.