MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Many significant issues have thundered across the college athletic sky this year.
One-time transfers with immediate eligibility was opened starting April 15. A student-athlete’s ability to profit off his or her Name, Image and Likeness began July 1. And on July 27, Big 12 members Oklahoma and Texas applied for admission to the SEC, likely starting another conference realignment tsunami.
One issue that got some attention, but then quickly seemed to fade because of the many other concerns, was the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shawne Alston vs. the NCAA case.
By a unanimous 9-0 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in its restrictions on compensation for education-related expenses for student-athletes.
Previous articles in this series with Shane Lyons
A number of lawsuits had been filed independently throughout the country and were combined into the Alston Case, which was led by former West Virginia running back Shawne Alston (2009-12).
Started in the Northern District of California, the initial ruling barred the NCAA from preventing student-athletes from receiving “post-eligibility scholarships to complete undergraduate or graduate degrees at any school; scholarships to attend vocational school; tutoring; expenses related to studying abroad that are not included in the cost of attendance calculation; and paid post-eligibility internships.”
After losing in the Northern District, the NCAA appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and in May of 2020, that three-judge panel upheld the initial ruling against the NCAA. Another NCAA appeal took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where arguments were heard on March 31, 2021. A unanimous decision was handed down on June 21, 2021, affirming the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.
While the ruling on the Alston Case concerned only educational expenses, many wonder if it will open the door to additional payments to student-athletes down the road.
“If you really dig into the court ruling, I think the outcome didn’t come as a surprise,” stated WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons. “Now the voting, being 9-0, did come as a bit of a surprise. But the ruling said the scholarship is still tethered to education, and you can provide awards, which cannot exceed $5,980 per year. We’re doing a lot of that here already at West Virginia. If a student needs a laptop or something else for their specific course of study, we’re providing those things.
“The awards aspect of it, which again totals up to $5,980 per year, is obviously the new part that we hadn’t been doing. What does that look like? Is that something we put in a trust each year, and if an athlete graduates in four or five years, it’s roughly $25,000 or $30,000 you can give them for a graduation award?
“The other thing with educational expenses, the ruling does indicate we’re permitted to cap (the awards),” continued Lyons in an exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. “For instance, it talks about the Lamborghini rule. Thus, you’re not going to go out and give a kid a car because they are in a certain class. So, there are still guardrails that are in there. But it’s something we have to work through. It’s new. How do we apply it today, and what will it look like in the future? That’s the big question.”
Some view the Alston Case as another step down the slope towards paying college student-athletes in a method similar to professionals. Lyons doesn’t believe this ruling does that.
“As long as college athletics remains tied to higher education, I really don’t see a pay-for-play model where student-athletes become employees,” explained Lyons, who has served as WVU’s AD since 2015. “I think the Supreme Court ruling kind of reinforces that, where it says, ‘OK, you can give more than the cost of attendance with those additional educational expenses and awards, but you’re not going to have a student-athlete become a flat-out employee.’
“Also the Alston case only applies to football and men’s and women’s basketball. So, you have the question out there in terms of how does this apply to Title IX? What does that mean? What does that look like? We don’t have the answers to that at this point.
“I don’t see this model becoming a pay-for-play model. I think the ruling reinforces that.”
While Lyons accepts the ruling, he doesn’t agree with all parts of it.
“Now, Judge (Brett) Kavanaugh’s comments (in which the Supreme Court Justice wrote, “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.”), I think, have everyone a little anxious. What does he really mean? Is he alone on this pedestal by himself or are the other judges behind him supporting him. We don’t know,” said Lyons. “He has his own viewpoints in comparing companies to college athletics, but we are different. I’m not sure that was probably expressed enough at the hearings in how we are different.”
College athletics has certainly grown into a big business over the years. In 2018-19, 52 Division I universities had athletic budgets of more than $80 million, according to a USA Today report, with three of those in excess of $200 million – Texas ($223,879,781), Texas A&M ($212,748,002) and Ohio State ($210,548,239).
At the same time, individual contracts within those athletic departments have also exploded. USA Today listed 82 FBS head coaches who earn salaries of more than $1 million in 2018-19, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban, whose total pay is $9.3 million. It was just 25 years ago that Florida State’s Bobby Bowden became the first college football head coach to crack the $1 million plateau.
“The model has changed. If you look at the model 30 or 40 years ago, it was different,” admitted Lyons, who is a native of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “But since then, the revenue has continued to grow and grow. Coaches’ contracts have continued to grow and grow, and administrators have also gotten larger salaries. I think that was kind of the tip of the issue, in terms of what is being given back to the student-athlete. But at the same time, running this operation day-to-day, on the expense side it takes a lot of money to run this department.”
Certainly, it takes a lot of money to run a major college athletic department today, but it’s also hard to deny that with more money often come more problems.
(This is part of a series of articles with Shane Lyons derived from his exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News. Further stories covering a wide variety of topics will be published in the future.)