As college athletics approaches two years of NIL, the NCAA continues to face mounting legal challenges to its rules. One of its most recent legal challenges comes from former Oklahoma State University football player, Chuba Hubbard, and former University of Oregon and Auburn University track and field athlete, Keira McCarrell.
Hubbard and McCarrell have filed a class action lawsuit against the NCAA and several conferences seeking to recover damages for not being allowed to receive what has become known as Alston awards. Alston awards are education-related benefits and financial rewards that are provided to college athletes directly from their respective school.
Education-related benefits include musical instruments, computers, and scholarships for graduate or vocational school. College athletes can be awarded up to $5,980 annually in Alston awards. Alston awards are the result of the landmark college athletics case, NCAA v. Alston.
The case was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court. Alston made it clear that the NCAA’s rules are subject to federal antitrust law.
NCAA v. Alston Established New Benefits
The Alston lawsuit was brought by former West Virginia football player, Shawne Alston. Alston sued the NCAA claiming that the association’s amateurism rules violated federal antitrust law.
While the NCAA acknowledged that their rules did in fact violate federal antitrust law, the NCAA argued that their rules were necessary to preserve amateurism in college sports. However, Alston successfully argued that the NCAA could preserve amateurism in a less restrictive manner. He argued that the NCAA could preserve amateurism by only restricting non-education related benefits while allowing athletes to receive greater education-related benefits.
The District Court ultimately ruled in favor of Alston finding that the NCAA could preserve amateurism is a less restrictive manner by no longer restricting education-related benefits while maintaining its restrictions on non-education related benefits. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s ruling. Accordingly, the NCAA can no longer restrict education-related benefits thereby allowing colleges athletes to receive Alston awards.
The Establishment of Alston Awards
Soon after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Alston, the University of Mississippi announced that it would begin allowing its college athletes to receive Alston awards. Since then, several other schools have followed suit allowing their athletes to receive Alston awards. These schools include Oklahoma State University, the University of Oregon, and Auburn University.
On March 9, 2022, OSU began allowing their athletes to receive $5,980 per year in Alston awards via their POSSE STAR Fund. However, OSU did not institute this program until after Hubbard’s tenure at OSU as Hubbard left OSU after the conclusion of the 2020-2021 school year to play professional football.
Hubbard would have qualified for Alston awards during his tenure in college as he was on the Dean’s Honor Roll and was named First Team Academic All-Big 12. Accordingly, Hubbard is seeking damages for not being allowed to receive the academic rewards that he would have qualified for.
Similarly, Oregon and Auburn instituted programs to provide their athletes with Alston awards. Specifically, over 97 percent of athletes at the University of Oregon received Alston awards during the 2021-2022 academic school year. In February of 2022, Auburn began issuing Academic Achievement Awards to its athletes.
While McCarrell did receive an Academic Achievement Award from Auburn once the program began, McCarrell was precluded from being rewarded for her academic success before her respective schools were allowed to make such awards available. Accordingly, McCarrell is seeking damages for being precluded from receiving rewards for her academic success during her time at Oregon and during her first two years at Auburn.
Compensating Former College Athletes
Per the complaint, Hubbard and McCarrell are seeking triple damages from the NCAA, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Pac-12 Conference and the Southeastern Conference for their illegal agreement that precluded athletes from receiving Academic Achievement Awards.
Specifically, Hubbard and McCarrell seek to recover damages for all current and former NCAA athletes who competed on a Division I team and who met the requirements to receive an Academic Achievement Award at any time between April 1, 2019 and the date of class certification.
This case is just one of many that the NCAA is currently facing. The NCAA is facing a similar case where the plaintiffs are seeking damages for back name, image, and likeness (NIL) pay in House v. NCAA. The NCAA is also facing a case seeking to determining if college athletes should be considered employees in Johnson v. NCAA.
As the fight for college athletes’ rights continues, the NCAA finds itself at a pivotal moment where it must decide how to redefine its role in the rapidly evolving landscape of college athletics.