By Alexander Hill
On October 29, 2019, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (the “NCAA”) announced that it would begin the process of directing its divisions to consider amendments to their bylaws to allow collegiate athletes to benefit from their names, images, and likenesses. In this announcement, the NCAA stated these changes would come in a manner “consistent with the collegiate model.” The NCAA’s decision follows California’s enactment of Senate Bill 206, commonly known as the “Fair Pay to Play Act” (the Act), which (upon its effective date of January 2023) will allow players to profit from their names, images, and likenesses, as well as sign agents to represent them in licensing contracts. Additionally, Congress and other state legislatures are considering proposed legislation that would have similar effects as the Act. However, the NCAA’s language of “consistent with the collegiate model” has an eerie similarity to the argument for restriction on amateurism that it made in O’Bannon v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n when it argued that compensation for college athletes goes against the “identity of college sports.” In comparison to the Act, how much can the NCAA limit the athletes’ ability to profit of their name, image, and likeness?
This post addresses the extent of the legal limitations under the Sherman Antitrust Act on the NCAA when implementing these changes “consistent with the collegiate model.” It analyzes these two procompetitive factors in light of the details of the California Act, and whether the rights granted to athletes under this bill hinder these purposes to the extent that the Rule of Reason allows the NCAA to structure its own likeness compensation rules more narrowly than the Act under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The Act allows athletes to hire agents to represent them in contracts with third parties to use the athletes’ likenesses in different ways, as well as allow the third parties to compensate the athletes in turn. However, the Act restricts schools from compensating the players when they use the athletes’ likenesses themselves. Additionally, athletes cannot enter into contracts if those contracts conflict with the terms of contracts entered into by the teams for which they play.
To this point, the prospect of amateurism as a procompetitive factor in college sports has allowed the NCAA to refuse cash compensation for name, image, and likeness under the Sherman Antitrust Act, as evidenced by O’Bannon. In O’Bannon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the NCAA’s rules on player compensation are subject to the Sherman Antitrust Act and should receive the scrutiny classified as the “Rule of Reason.” In the Rule of Reason analysis, the court addresses whether a restriction on trade is procompetitive, and if it is procompetitive, whether there is another way to promote the goal of the restriction in a less restrictive way. In the O’Bannon case, the court found that the NCAA’s restriction on cash payments from schools to athletes for their name, image, or likeness beyond grants for educational expenses of the athlete failed the Rule of Reason analysis. In its reasoning, the court noted the restriction promoted two procompetitive purposes: “preserving the popularity of the NCAA’s product by promoting its current understanding of amateurism” and “integrating academics and athletics.” The court held that third parties, specifically EA Sports, which for years had made video games based on college athletics, could not use the athletes’ likeness without compensating them.
In the court’s reasoning, however, the court mainly addressed the procompetitive factor of “preserving the popularity of the NCAA’s product by promoting its current understanding of amateurism” and did not really address the issue of “integrating academics and athletics.” The court failed to address the fact that the NCAA already has in place certain eligibility requirements that require athletes to take certain kinds of classes during their tenure in school, as well as a GPA requirement that all athletes have to meet. Whether or not players are compensated appears to have no bearing on the athletes’ integration into their college’s academics in any way. Where students are required to still maintain a certain level of academic achievement, an allowance for compensation would be a less restrictive alternative to restricting compensation for athletes while still maintaining the procompetitive factor of integrating athletics to academics. Therefore, allowing compensation for athletes would pass the Rule of Reason under the third prong. So, the only procompetitive factor that could be restricted would be restricting the popularity of the NCAA’s product.
When analyzing the restriction on the popularity of the NCAA’s product, the court in O’Bannon only focused on recruitment of players and payments to the players by the colleges themselves. As noted above, the court held that colleges could not compensate athletes for their likenesses because it would hinder the popularity of the NCAA’s product. Similar to this holding, the Act prohibited the ability of schools to pay their athletes for their likenesses. So, that requirement would actually be consistent with O’Bannon. Looking at the allowance for athletes to hire agents, there is no reason why this would restrict the popularity of the sport. Applying the Rule of Reason analysis, allowing players to hire agents would not be more restrictive on the popularity of the NCAA’s product than would allowing players to earn compensation from third parties. If mandating that third parties must pay collegiate athletes for their likeness is not restrictive on this procompetitive aspect by O’Bannon, certainly allowing the athletes to hire agents to ensure they are fairly represented in a contract would meet the same standard under the Rule of Reason. So, naturally, allowing the athletes to hire agents would pass the Rule of Reason analysis and the NCAA would not be able to prevent students from being able to hire agents.
Additionally, if the court already held in O’Bannon that third parties are required to compensate the athletes, the requirement in the Fair Pay to Play Act that prevents the NCAA from implementing a rule prohibiting the athletes’ ability to profit off of their likeness is consistent with the holding in O’Bannon. Therefore, it appears that the allowances for athletes in the Fair Pay to Play Act are consistent with the court’s holding in O’Bannon.
In conclusion, it appears that the
Fair Pay to Play Act’s grant of rights to athletes are consistent with the
holding in O’Bannon, and any restriction beyond the Fair Pay to Play Act
by the NCAA would be inconsistent with the ruling in O’Bannon.
 Board of Governors Starts Process to Enhance Name, Image and Likeness Opportunities, NCAA (Oct. 29, 2019, 1:08 PM), http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/board-governors-starts-process-enhance-name-image-and-likeness-opportunities.
 Allen Kim, California Just Passed a Law That Allows College Athletes to Get Paid, CNN (Sep. 29, 2019, 4:01 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/30/sport/california-sb-206-ncaa-trnd/index.html
 Michael McCann, What’s Next After California Signs Game Changer Fair Pay to Play Act into Law?, Sports Illustrated (Sep. 30, 2019), https://www.si.com/college/2019/09/30/fair-pay-to-play-act-law-ncaa-california-pac-12
 O’Bannon v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 802 F.3d 1049, 1058 (9th Cir. 2015).
 Fair Pay to Play Act, S.B. 206, 2019 Cal. State Senate (Cal. 2019).
 O’Bannon, 802 F.3d at 1079.
 Id. at 1070.
 Id. at 1079.
 Id. at 1076.
 Id. at 1067.
 Id. at 1076.
 Id.; Amateurism, NCAA (last visited Nov. 4, 2019), http://www.ncaa.org/student-athletes/future/amateurism
 O’Bannon, 802 F.3d at 1076.
 Cal. S.B. 206.
 O’Bannon, 802 F.3d at 1067.