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From Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), populist calls to “fix” our antitrust laws and the underlying Consumer Welfare Standard have found a foothold on Capitol Hill. At the same time, there are calls to “fix” the Supreme Court by packing it with new justices. The court’s unanimous decision in NCAA v. Alston demonstrates that neither needs repair. To the contrary, clearly anti-competitive conduct—like the NCAA’s compensation rules—is proscribed under the Consumer Welfare Standard, and every justice from Samuel Alito to Sonia Sotomayor can agree on that.

In 1984, the court in NCAA v. Board of Regents suggested that “courts should take care when assessing the NCAA’s restraints on student-athlete compensation.” After all, joint ventures like sports leagues are entitled to rule-of-reason treatment. But while times change, the Consumer Welfare Standard is sufficiently flexible to meet those changes.

Where a competitive restraint exists primarily to ensure that “enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes,” the court rightly calls it out for what it is. As Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurrence:

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.  And under ordinary principles of antitrust law, it is not evident why college sports should be any different.  The NCAA is not above the law.

Disturbing these “ordinary principles”—whether through legislation, administrative rulemaking, or the common law—is simply unnecessary. For example, the Open Markets Institute filed an amicus brief arguing that the rule of reason should be “bounded” and willfully blind to the pro-competitive benefits some joint ventures can create (an argument that has been used, unsuccessfully, to attack ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has proposed shifting the burden of proof so that merging parties are guilty until proven innocent. Sen. Warren would go further, deeming Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods anti-competitive simply because the company is “big,” and ignoring the merger’s myriad pro-competitive benefits. Sen. Hawley has gone further still: calling on Amazon to be investigated criminally for the crime of being innovative and successful.

Several of the current proposals, including those from Sens. Klobuchar and Hawley (and those recently introduced in the House that essentially single out firms for disfavored treatment), would replace the Consumer Welfare Standard that has underpinned antitrust law for decades with a policy that effectively punishes firms for being politically unpopular.

These examples demonstrate we should be wary when those in power assert that things are so irreparably broken that they need a complete overhaul. The “solutions” peddled usually increase politicians’ power by enabling them to pick winners and losers through top-down approaches that stifle the bottom-up innovations that make consumers’ lives better.

Are antitrust law and the Supreme Court perfect? Hardly. But in a 9-0 decision, the court proved this week that there’s nothing broken about either.

In its June 21 opinion in NCAA v. Alston, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and thereby upheld a district court injunction finding unlawful certain National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules limiting the education-related benefits schools may make available to student athletes. The decision will come as no surprise to antitrust lawyers who heard the oral argument; the NCAA was portrayed as a monopsony cartel whose rules undermined competition by restricting compensation paid to athletes.

Alas, however, Alston demonstrates that seemingly “good facts” (including an apparently Scrooge-like defendant) can make very bad law. While superficially appearing to be a relatively straightforward application of Sherman Act rule of reason principles, the decision fails to come to grips with the relationship of the restraints before it to the successful provision of the NCAA’s joint venture product – amateur intercollegiate sports. What’s worse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion further muddies the court’s murky jurisprudential waters by signaling his view that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules are anticompetitive and could be struck down in an appropriate case (“it is not clear how the NCAA can defend its remaining compensation rules”). Prospective plaintiffs may be expected to take the hint.

The Court’s Flawed Analysis

I previously commented on this then-pending case a few months ago:

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing.

Unfortunately, my concerns about a Supreme Court affirmance of the 9th Circuit were realized. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for the court in Alston manifests a blinkered approach to the NCAA “monopsony” joint venture. To be sure, it cites and briefly discusses key Supreme Court joint venture holdings, including 2006’s Texaco v. Dagher. Nonetheless, it gives short shrift to the efficiency-based considerations that counsel presumptive deference to joint venture design rules that are key to the nature of a joint venture’s product.  

As a legal matter, the court felt obliged to defer to key district court findings not contested by the NCAA—including that the NCAA enjoys “monopsony power” in the student athlete labor market, and that the NCAA’s restrictions in fact decrease student athlete compensation “below the competitive level.”

However, even conceding these points, the court could have, but did not, take note of and assess the role of the restrictions under review in helping engender the enormous consumer benefits the NCAA confers upon consumers of its collegiate sports product. There is good reason to view those restrictions as an effort by the NCAA to address a negative externality that could diminish the attractiveness of the NCAA’s product for ultimate consumers, a result that would in turn reduce inter-brand competition.

As the amicus brief by antitrust economists (“Antitrust Economists Brief”) pointed out:

[T]he NCAA’s consistent and growing popularity reflects a product—”amateur sports” played by students and identified with the academic tradition—that continues to generate enormous consumer interest. Moreover, it appears without dispute that the NCAA, while in control of the design of its own athletic products, has preserved their integrity as amateur sports, notwithstanding the commercial success of some of them, particularly Division I basketball and Football Subdivision football. . . . Over many years, the NCAA has continually adjusted its eligibility and participation rules to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests—which certainly can involve “pay to play”—in ways that would conflict with the procompetitive aims of the collaboration. In this sense, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are a classic example of addressing negative externalities and free riding that often are inherent or arise in the collaboration context.

The use of contractual restrictions (vertical restraints) to counteract free riding and other negative externalities generated in manufacturer-distributor interactions are well-recognized by antitrust courts. Although the restraints at issue in NCAA (and many other joint venture situations) are horizontal in nature, not vertical, they may be just as important as other nonstandard contracts in aligning the incentives of member institutions to best satisfy ultimate consumers. Satisfying consumers, in turn, enhances inter-brand competition between the NCAA’s product and other rival forms of entertainment, including professional sports offerings.

Alan Meese made a similar point in a recent paper (discussing a possible analytical framework for the court’s then-imminent Alston analysis):

[U]nchecked bidding for the services of student athletes could result in a market failure and suboptimal product quality, proof that the restraint reduces student athlete compensation below what an unbridled market would produce should not itself establish a prima facie case. Such evidence would instead be equally consistent with a conclusion that the restraint eliminates this market failure and restores compensation to optimal levels.

The court’s failure to address the externality justification was compounded by its handling of the rule of reason. First, in rejecting a truncated rule of reason with an initial presumption that the NCAA’s restraints involving student compensation are procompetitive, the court accepted that the NCAA’s monopsony power showed that its restraints “can (and in fact do) harm competition.” This assertion ignored the efficiency justification discussed above. As the Antitrust Economists’ Brief emphasized: 

[A]cting more like regulators, the lower courts treated the NCAA’s basic product design as inherently anticompetitive [so did the Supreme Court], pushing forward with a full rule of reason that sent the parties into a morass of inquiries that were not (and were never intended to be) structured to scrutinize basic product design decisions and their hypothetical alternatives. Because that inquiry was unrestrained and untethered to any input or output restraint, the application of the rule of reason in this case necessarily devolved into a quasi-regulatory inquiry, which antitrust law eschews.

Having decided that a “full” rule of reason analysis is appropriate, the Supreme Court, in effect, imposed a “least restrictive means” test on the restrictions under review, while purporting not to do so. (“We agree with the NCAA’s premise that antitrust law does not require businesses to use anything like the least restrictive means of achieving legitimate business purposes.”) The court concluded that “it was only after finding the NCAA’s restraints ‘patently and inexplicably stricter than is necessary’ to achieve the procompetitive benefits the league had demonstrated that the district court proceeded to declare a violation of the Sherman Act.” Effectively, however, this statement deferred to the lower court’s second-guessing of the means employed by the NCAA to preserve consumer demand, which the lower court did without any empirical basis.

The Supreme Court also approved the district court’s rejection of the NCAA’s view of what amateurism requires. It stressed the district court’s findings that “the NCAA’s rules and restrictions on compensation have shifted markedly over time” (seemingly a reasonable reaction to changes in market conditions) and that the NCAA developed the restrictions at issue without any reference to “considerations of consumer demand” (a de facto regulatory mandate directed at the NCAA). The Supreme Court inexplicably dubbed these lower court actions “a straightforward application of the rule of reason.” These actions seem more like blind deference to rather arbitrary judicial second-guessing of the expert party with the greatest interest in satisfying consumer demand.

The Supreme Court ended its misbegotten commentary on “less restrictive alternatives” by first claiming that it agreed that “antitrust courts must give wide berth to business judgments before finding liability.” The court asserted that the district court honored this and other principles of judicial humility because it enjoined restraints on education-related benefits “only after finding that relaxing these restrictions would not blur the distinction between college and professional sports and thus impair demand – and only finding that this course represented a significantly (not marginally) less restrictive means of achieving the same procompetitive benefits as the NCAA’s current rules.” This lower court finding once again was not based on an empirical analysis of procompetitive benefits under different sets of rules. It was little more than the personal opinion of a judge, who lacked the NCAA’s knowledge of relevant markets and expertise. That the Supreme Court accepted it as an exercise in restrained judicial analysis is well nigh inexplicable.

The Antitrust Economists’ Brief, unlike the Supreme Court, enunciated the correct approach to judicial rewriting of core NCAA joint venture rules:

The institutions that are members of the NCAA want to offer a particular type of athletic product—an amateur athletic product that they believe is consonant with their primary academic missions. By doing so, as th[e] [Supreme] Court has [previously] recognized [in its 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents decision], they create a differentiated offering that widens consumer choice and enhances opportunities for student-athletes. NCAA, 468 U.S. at 102. These same institutions have drawn lines that they believe balance their desire to foster intercollegiate athletic competition with their overarching academic missions. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit have now said that they may not do so, unless they draw those lines differently. Yet neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit determined that the lines drawn reduce the output of intercollegiate athletics or ascertained whether their judicially-created lines would expand that output. That is not the function of antitrust courts, but of legislatures.                                                                                                   

Other Harms the Court Failed to Consider                    

Finally, the court failed to consider other harms that stem from a presumptive suspicion of NCAA restrictions on athletic compensation in general. The elimination of compensation rules should favor large well-funded athletic programs over others, potentially undermining “competitive balance” among schools. (Think of an NCAA March Madness tournament where “Cinderella stories” are eliminated, as virtually all the talented players have been snapped up by big name schools.) It could also, through the reallocation of income to “big name big sports” athletes who command a bidding premium, potentially reduce funding support for “minor college sports” that provide opportunities to a wide variety of student-athletes. This would disadvantage those athletes, undermine the future of “minor” sports, and quite possibly contribute to consumer disillusionment and unhappiness (think of the millions of parents of “minor sports” athletes).

What’s more, the existing rules allow many promising but non-superstar athletes to develop their skills over time, enhancing their ability to eventually compete at the professional level. (This may even be the case for some superstars, who may obtain greater long-term financial rewards by refining their talents and showcasing their skills for a year or two in college.) In addition, the current rules climate allows many student athletes who do not turn professional to develop personal connections that serve them well in their professional and personal lives, including connections derived from the “brand” of their university. (Think of wealthy and well-connected alumni who are ardent fans of their colleges’ athletic programs.) In a world without NCAA amateurism rules, the value of these experiences and connections could wither, to the detriment of athletes and consumers alike. (Consistent with my conclusion, economists Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee have argued against the proposition that “college athletes are materially ‘underpaid’ and are ‘exploited’”.)   

This “parade of horribles” might appear unlikely in the short term. Nevertheless, in the course of time, the inability of the NCAA to control the attributes of its product, due to a changed legal climate, make it all too real. This is especially the case in light of Justice Kavanaugh’s strong warning that other NCAA compensation restrictions are likely indefensible. (As he bluntly put it, venerable college sports “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.”)

Conclusion

The Supreme Court’s misguided Alston decision fails to weigh the powerful efficiency justifications for the NCAA’s amateurism rules. This holding virtually invites other lower courts to ignore efficiencies and to second guess decisions that go to the heart of the NCAA’s joint venture product offering. The end result is likely to reduce consumer welfare and, quite possibly, the welfare of many student athletes as well. One would hope that Congress, if it chooses to address NCAA rules, will keep these dangers well in mind. A statutory change not directed solely at the NCAA, creating a rebuttable presumption of legality for restraints that go to the heart of a lawful joint venture, may merit serious consideration.   

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

On September 30, in O’Bannon v. NCAA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules that prohibited student athletes from being paid for the use of their names, images, and likenesses are subject to the antitrust laws and constitute an unlawful restraint of trade, under the antitrust rule of reason.  This landmark holding represents the first federal appellate condemnation of NCAA limitations on compensating student athletes.  (In two previous Truth on the Market posts I discussed this lawsuit and later explained that I agreed with the federal district court’s decision striking down these NCAA rules.)  The gist of the 9th Circuit’s opinion is summarized by the Court’s staff:

“The [9th Circuit] panel held that it was not precluded from reaching the merits of plaintiffs’ Sherman Act claim because:  (1) the Supreme Court did not hold in NCAA v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Okla., 468 U.S. 85 (1984), that the NCAA’s amateurism rules are valid as a matter of law; (2) the rules are subject to the Sherman Act because they regulate commercial activity; and (3) the plaintiffs established that they suffered injury in fact, and therefore had standing, by showing that, absent the NCAA’s rules, video game makers would likely pay them for the right to use their names, images, and likenesses in college sports video games.

The panel held that even though many of the NCAA’s rules were likely to be procompetitive, they were not exempt from antitrust scrutiny and must be analyzed under the Rule of Reason.  Applying the Rule of Reason, the panel held that the NCAA’s rules had significant anticompetitive effects within the college education market, in that they fixed an aspect of the “price” that recruits pay to attend college.  The record supported the district court’s finding that the rules served the procompetitive purposes of integrating academics with athletics and preserving the popularity of the NCAA’s product by promoting its current understanding of amateurism.  The panel concluded that the district court identified one proper less restrictive alternative to the current NCAA rules – i.e., allowing NCAA members to give scholarships up to the full cost of attendance – but the district court’s other remedy, allowing students to be paid cash compensation of up to $5,000 per year, was erroneous.  The panel vacated the district court’s judgment and permanent injunction insofar as they required the NCAA to allow its member schools to pay student-athletes up to $5,000 per year in deferred compensation.

Chief Judge Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part. He  disagreed with the [two judge panel] majority’s conclusion that the district court clearly erred in ordering the NCAA to permit up to $5,000 in deferred compensation above student-athletes’ full cost of attendance.”

The key point of the 9th Circuit’s decision, that competitively restrictive rules are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny because they promote the perception of “amateurism,” is clearly correct, and in line with modern antitrust jurisprudence.  The Supreme Court has taught that anticompetitive restrictions aimed at furthering the reputation of the learned professions (see Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar (1975), striking down a minimum legal fee schedule for title searches), and their ability to advance social goals effectively (see FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association (1990), condemning a joint effort to raise government-paid legal aid fees and thereby “enhance” the quality of legal aid representation), are fully subject to antitrust review.  Even the alleged desire to ensure that quality medical services are not sacrificed (see FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (1986), rejecting a dental association’s agreement to deny insurers’ request for procedure-specific dental x-rays), and that safety is maintained in major construction projects (see National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States (1978), striking down an ethical canon barring competitive bids for engineering services), do not shield agreements from antitrust evaluation and potential condemnation.  In light of those teachings, the NCAA’s claim (based on a clear misreading of the Supreme Court’s NCAA v. Board of Regents (1984) decision) that its highly restrictive “amateurism” rules should be exempt from antitrust review is patently absurd.

Moreover, as a matter of substance, the NCAA is precisely the sort of institution whose rules merit close evaluation by antitrust enforcers.  The NCAA is a monopsony cartel, representing the institutions (America’s colleges) which effectively are the sole buyers of the services of high school football and basketball players who hope to pursue professional sports careers.  Moreover, the NCAA’s rules regarding student athletes greatly limit competition, artificially limit athletes’ compensation, and are in severe tension with the “scholar-athlete” ideal that the NCAA claims it promotes.  In 2011, the late University of Chicago Professor Gary Becker, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, put it starkly:

“[T]he NCAA sharply limits the number of athletic scholarships, and even more importantly, limits the size of the scholarships that schools can offer the best players.  NCAA rules also severely restricts the gifts and housing players are allowed to receive from alumni and others, do not allow college players to receive pay for playing for professional teams during summers or even before they attended college, and limits what they can be paid for non-playing summer work.  The rules are extremely complicated, and they constitute hundreds of pages that lay out what is permitted in recruiting prospective students, when students have to make binding commitments to attend schools, the need to renew athletic scholarships, the assistance that can be provided to players’ parents, and of course the size of scholarships.

It is impossible for an outsider to look at these rules without concluding that their main aim is to make the NCAA an effective cartel that severely constrains competition among schools for players.  The NCAA defends these rules by claiming that their main purpose is to prevent exploitation of student-athletes, to provide a more equitable system of recruitment that enables many colleges to maintain football and basketball programs and actively search for athletes, and to insure that the athletes become students as well as athletes. Unfortunately for the NCAA, the facts are blatantly inconsistent with these defenses. .

A large fraction of the Division I players in basketball and football, the two big money sports, are recruited from poor families; many of them are African-Americans from inner cities and rural areas. Every restriction on the size of scholarships that can be given to athletes in these sports usually takes money away from poor athletes and their families, and in effect transfers these resources to richer students in the form of lower tuition and cheaper tickets for games. . . .

[T]he graduation rates for these minority students-athletes are depressingly low. For example, the average graduation rate of Division I African American basketball and football players appears to be less than 50%.

Some of the top players quit school to play in the NBA or NFL, but that is a tiny fraction of all athletes who dropout.  The vast majority dropout either because they use up their sports eligibility before they completed the required number of classes, or they failed to continue to make the teams.  Schools usually forget about athletes when they stop competing.  An important further difference between athletes and non-athletes who drop out of school is that athletes would have been able to get much better financial support for themselves and their families but for the NCAA restrictions on compensation to athletes.  They could have used these additional assets to help them finish school, or to get a better start if they dropped out.”

Also in 2011, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit echoed Professor Becker’s views regarding NCAA student competition rules and noted the NCAA’s history of avoiding antitrust problems:

“The National Collegiate Athletic Association behaves monopsonistically in forbidding its member colleges and universities to pay its athletes.  Although cartels, including monopsonistic ones, are generally deemed to be illegal per se under American antitrust law, the NCAA’s monopsonistic behavior has thus far not been successfully challenged.  The justification that the NCAA offers – that collegiate athletes are students and would be corrupted by being salaried – coupled with the fact that the members of the NCAA, and the NCAA itself, are formally not-for-profit institutions, have had sufficient appeal to enable the association to continue to impose and enforce its rule against paying student athletes, and a number of subsidiary rules designed to prevent the cheating by cartel members that plagues most cartels.

As Becker points out, were it not for the monopsonistic rule against paying student athletes, these athletes would be paid; the monopsony transfers wealth from them to their “employers,” the colleges. A further consequence is that college teams are smaller and, more important, of lower quality than they would be if the student athletes were paid.”

In sum, the 9th Circuit O’Bannon Court merits praise for deciding clearly and unequivocally that antitrust applies to the NCAA’s student athlete rules, irrespective of whether one agrees with the specific holding in the case.  The antitrust laws are a “consumer welfare prescription” that applies generally to activities that have an impact on interstate commerce, and short shrift should be given to the claim by any institution that it should be antitrust-exempt based on the alleged “virtue” or “public-spiritedness” of its actions.  (This reasoning also supports the lifting of baseball’s antitrust exemption, which stems from a 1922 Supreme Court decision that is out of step with modern antitrust jurisprudence.  But that is a matter for another day.)

On September 30, in O’Bannon v. NCAA, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit held that the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) rules that prohibited student athletes from being paid for the use of their names, images, and likenesses are subject to the antitrust laws and constitute an unlawful restraint of trade, under the antitrust rule of reason. This landmark holding represents the first federal appellate condemnation of NCAA limitations on compensating student athletes. (In two previous Truth on the Market posts I discussed this lawsuit and later explained that I agreed with the federal district court’s decision striking down these NCAA rules.) The gist of the 9th Circuit’s opinion is summarized by the Court’s staff:

The [9th Circuit] panel held that it was not precluded from reaching the merits of plaintiffs’ Sherman Act claim because: (1) the Supreme Court did not hold in NCAA v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Okla., 468 U.S. 85 (1984), that the NCAA’s amateurism rules are valid as a matter of law; (2) the rules are subject to the Sherman Act because they regulate commercial activity; and (3) the plaintiffs established that they suffered injury in fact, and therefore had standing, by showing that, absent the NCAA’s rules, video game makers would likely pay them for the right to use their names, images, and likenesses in college sports video games.

The panel held that even though many of the NCAA’s rules were likely to be procompetitive, they were not exempt from antitrust scrutiny and must be analyzed under the Rule of Reason. Applying the Rule of Reason, the panel held that the NCAA’s rules had significant anticompetitive effects within the college education market, in that they fixed an aspect of the “price” that recruits pay to attend college. The record supported the district court’s finding that the rules served the procompetitive purposes of integrating academics with athletics and preserving the popularity of the NCAA’s product by promoting its current understanding of amateurism. The panel concluded that the district court identified one proper less restrictive alternative to the current NCAA rules – i.e., allowing NCAA members to give scholarships up to the full cost of attendance – but the district court’s other remedy, allowing students to be paid cash compensation of up to $5,000 per year, was erroneous. The panel vacated the district court’s judgment and permanent injunction insofar as they required the NCAA to allow its member schools to pay student-athletes up to $5,000 per year in deferred compensation.

Chief Judge Thomas concurred in part and dissented in part. He disagreed with the [two judge panel] majority’s conclusion that the district court clearly erred in ordering the NCAA to permit up to $5,000 in deferred compensation above student-athletes’ full cost of attendance.

The key point of the 9th Circuit’s decision, that competitively restrictive rules are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny because they promote the perception of “amateurism,” is clearly correct, and in line with modern antitrust jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has taught that anticompetitive restrictions aimed at furthering the reputation of the learned professions (see Goldfarb v. Virginia State Bar (1975), striking down a minimum legal fee schedule for title searches), and their ability to advance social goals effectively (see FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association (1990), condemning a joint effort to raise government-paid legal aid fees and thereby “enhance” the quality of legal aid representation), are fully subject to antitrust review. Even the alleged desire to ensure that quality medical services are not sacrificed (see FTC v. Indiana Federation of Dentists (1986), rejecting a dental association’s agreement to deny insurers’ request for procedure-specific dental x-rays), and that safety is maintained in major construction projects (see National Society of Professional Engineers v. United States (1978), striking down an ethical canon barring competitive bids for engineering services), do not shield agreements from antitrust evaluation and potential condemnation. In light of those teachings, the NCAA’s claim (based on a clear misreading of the Supreme Court’s NCAA v. Board of Regents (1984) decision) that its highly restrictive “amateurism” rules should be exempt from antitrust review is patently absurd.

Moreover, as a matter of substance, the NCAA is precisely the sort of institution whose rules merit close evaluation by antitrust enforcers. The NCAA is a monopsony cartel, representing the institutions (America’s colleges) which effectively are the sole buyers of the services of high school football and basketball players who hope to pursue professional sports careers. Moreover, the NCAA’s rules regarding student athletes greatly limit competition, artificially limit athletes’ compensation, and are in severe tension with the “scholar-athlete” ideal that the NCAA claims it promotes. In 2011, the late University of Chicago Professor Gary Becker, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, put it starkly:

[T]he NCAA sharply limits the number of athletic scholarships, and even more importantly, limits the size of the scholarships that schools can offer the best players. NCAA rules also severely restricts the gifts and housing players are allowed to receive from alumni and others, do not allow college players to receive pay for playing for professional teams during summers or even before they attended college, and limits what they can be paid for non-playing summer work. The rules are extremely complicated, and they constitute hundreds of pages that lay out what is permitted in recruiting prospective students, when students have to make binding commitments to attend schools, the need to renew athletic scholarships, the assistance that can be provided to players’ parents, and of course the size of scholarships.

It is impossible for an outsider to look at these rules without concluding that their main aim is to make the NCAA an effective cartel that severely constrains competition among schools for players. The NCAA defends these rules by claiming that their main purpose is to prevent exploitation of student-athletes, to provide a more equitable system of recruitment that enables many colleges to maintain football and basketball programs and actively search for athletes, and to insure that the athletes become students as well as athletes. Unfortunately for the NCAA, the facts are blatantly inconsistent with these defenses. . . .
A large fraction of the Division I players in basketball and football, the two big money sports, are recruited from poor families; many of them are African-Americans from inner cities and rural areas. Every restriction on the size of scholarships that can be given to athletes in these sports usually takes money away from poor athletes and their families, and in effect transfers these resources to richer students in the form of lower tuition and cheaper tickets for games. . . .

[T]he graduation rates for these minority students-athletes are depressingly low. For example, the average graduation rate of Division I African American basketball and football players appears to be less than 50%.

Some of the top players quit school to play in the NBA or NFL, but that is a tiny fraction of all athletes who dropout. The vast majority dropout either because they use up their sports eligibility before they completed the required number of classes, or they failed to continue to make the teams. Schools usually forget about athletes when they stop competing. An important further difference between athletes and non-athletes who drop out of school is that athletes would have been able to get much better financial support for themselves and their families but for the NCAA restrictions on compensation to athletes. They could have used these additional assets to help them finish school, or to get a better start if they dropped out.

Also in 2011, Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit echoed Professor Becker’s views regarding NCAA student competition rules and noted the NCAA’s history of avoiding antitrust problems:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association behaves monopsonistically in forbidding its member colleges and universities to pay its athletes. Although cartels, including monopsonistic ones, are generally deemed to be illegal per se under American antitrust law, the NCAA’s monopsonistic behavior has thus far not been successfully challenged. The justification that the NCAA offers – that collegiate athletes are students and would be corrupted by being salaried – coupled with the fact that the members of the NCAA, and the NCAA itself, are formally not-for-profit institutions, have had sufficient appeal to enable the association to continue to impose and enforce its rule against paying student athletes, and a number of subsidiary rules designed to prevent the cheating by cartel members that plagues most cartels.

As Becker points out, were it not for the monopsonistic rule against paying student athletes, these athletes would be paid; the monopsony transfers wealth from them to their “employers,” the colleges. A further consequence is that college teams are smaller and, more important, of lower quality than they would be if the student athletes were paid.

In sum, the 9th Circuit O’Bannon Court merits praise for deciding clearly and unequivocally that antitrust applies to the NCAA’s student athlete rules, irrespective of whether one agrees with the specific holding in the case. The antitrust laws are a “consumer welfare prescription” that applies generally to activities that have an impact on interstate commerce, and short shrift should be given to any institution that claims it should be antitrust-exempt based on the alleged “virtue” or “public-spiritedness” of its actions. (This reasoning also supports the lifting of baseball’s antitrust exemption, which stems from a 1922 Supreme Court decision that is out of step with modern antitrust jurisprudence. But that is a matter for another day.)