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Washington-area universities await ‘official interpretations’ of Supreme Court ruling on student-athlete benefits

Gonzaga's Jenn Wirth, center, shoots over Belmont's Conley Chinn (20) during the first half of a college basketball game in the first round of the women's NCAA tournament at the University Events Center in San Marcos, Texas, on March 22, 2021.  (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

Eastern Washington universities are playing the wait-and-see game after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday the NCAA cannot limit education-related benefits colleges can provide student athletes.

The ruling allows colleges to offer scholarships to graduate school, payments for academic tutoring, paid post-eligibility internships, computers and other boons rooted in educational purposes. It does not, however, enable salaries for student athletes nor does it allow athletes to earn money off of their name, image or likeness – also known as “NIL” rights.

The ruling only prohibits the NCAA from setting limits on education-related benefits. Individual athletic conferences can enforce whatever they choose.

Lynn Hickey, director of athletics for Eastern Washington University, said EWU is waiting on recommendations from the Big Sky Conference subcommittee on NIL rights “to see if we do something as a group or as individual schools.”

The case emerged when a group of former athletes, including former West Virginia football player Shawne Alston, argued the NCAA’s rules on compensation violate federal antitrust law designed to promote competition. A lower court, leaving some of those rules as-is, barred the NCAA from limiting education-related benefits.

“It wasn’t a surprise that they would affirm the lower court ruling,” said Mike Roth, Gonzaga University’s athletics director. “We’re all waiting for some official interpretations from the legal folks, some of the folks in Indianapolis (home of NCAA) but also conferencewise what does this exactly mean.”

Washington State University Athletics Director Pat Chun declined to comment. A university spokesperson indicated Chun is still reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision.

With internships, the college and the NCAA still retain the right to restrict internships that are outside of the educational experience or are not coordinated through the institution or the athletic conference, said Jennifer Lee Hoffman, an associate professor of educational foundations, leadership and policy at the University of Washington.

“What the court, I think, recognizes is they’re trying to reduce the restrictions on what institutions can offer in terms of paid educational opportunities while being mindful,” said Hoffman, who helped organized a forum last month hosted by Gonzaga about legal issues in collegiate sports. “They’re not interested in opening the door to things that would, at the very least, violate academic code.”

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch – writing for a unanimous Supreme Court – also said the NCAA is “free to forbid in-kind benefits unrelated to a student’s actual education; nothing stops it from enforcing a ‘no Lamborghini’ rule.” According to court documents, the NCAA specifically feared schools might “exploit” loosened restrictions to give students luxury cars to get to class.

Hoffman said Monday’s ruling doesn’t change anything with federal Title IX regulations, which require that men and women are provided equitable opportunities to participate in sports.

“Where we would want to look for fairness is to make sure that women athletes are being offered the same kinds of educational amenities and educational benefits that men athletes are receiving under recruiting and then also when they come to campus,” Hoffman said.

Roth said the direction is “somewhat of a foreshadowing” of where future NIL legislation with the NCAA is heading.

The Supreme Court’s decision is the latest chapter amid years of scrutiny placed on the inability for collegiate student athletes to profit from their performances and their own celebrity while the NCAA and colleges make billions in revenue.

NIL legislation in at least six states is set to take effect by July 1. Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has said the chances of passing a federal bill before July are slim.

Through it all, NCAA President Mark Emmert has urged the association’s more than 1,100 members to pass NIL legislation before the end of June, according to the Associated Press.

While the Supreme Court’s decision Monday only concerned the NCAA’s limits on education-based benefits, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said in a concurring opinion the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules “also raise serious questions under the antitrust laws,” describing the enterprise as “price-fixing labor.”

“The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels,” Kavanaugh wrote. “But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry.”

Hoffman said NCAA vs. Alston lays the groundwork for more substantial NIL rights reform.

“What the ruling today doesn’t actually solve is the broader system of how we both generate revenue through college athletics and then how college athletes are compensated,” she said. “So while on a short term, we may have additional tools that coaches might use to recruit athletes because they’ll have a larger array of amenities they might offer, there’s still this fundamental problem around amateurism.”

The Associated Press and Spokesman-Review reporters Jim Meehan and Theo Lawson contributed to this report.