The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that it would allow the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to became an additional presenter during the landmark case, NCAA v. Alston, which is set for oral argument on March 31, 2021.

The Alston case arises out of consolidated appeals from the NCAA and several high-level conferences in two U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rulings, American Athletic Conference v. Alston and NCAA v. Alston, which challenge the NCAA’s restrictions on compensation student-athletes can earn while participating in collegiate athletics.

The U.S. Solicitor General will have 10 minutes to argue the DOJ’s position that the Ninth Circuit properly found the NCAA’s limitations on education-based benefits to college athletes, including cash-based awards, violate federal anti-trust law under the Sherman Act. Given that the DOJ is the entity responsible for enforcing U.S. anti-trust law, its oral argument regarding its position could prove especially impactful.

In its March 10, 2021 amicus brief — one of 22 filed in Alston by various individuals and entities — the DOJ argued that the NCAA’s restrictions must be analyzed using the full “Rule of Reason” review typical for alleged anticompetitive practices under the Sherman Act. Rule of Reason review would allow a court to undertake an analysis of whether the NCAA’s rules are the least restrictive means to accomplish procompetitive goals. The DOJ’s brief notes that the Supreme Court has never upheld an alleged restraint of trade under Section 1 of the Sherman Act “based on a quick look or abbreviated deferential review” and that doing so in this case would be improper because the NCAA’s restrictions amount to “horizontal price-fixing agreements among competitors who exercise monopsony control in the relevant labor market.”

In its reply brief, the NCAA admonishes the DOJ’s view and stresses the importance of maintaining its authority to oversee collegiate athletics without “judicial superintendence of a defining aspect of college sports.”

Thus, the NCAA maintains that anti-trust concerns regarding its amateurism rules should be analyzed under a more relaxed standard of review.

By agreeing to include the DOJ in oral argument, the Supreme Court may have tipped its hand, at least with respect to what it perceives as the weakness in the NCAA’s case.

While the DOJ does not necessarily contest the NCAA’s control over its amateurism model, it does oppose treating the NCAA differently under anti-trust laws.

The NCAA has defended challenges to its amateurism model in the past by relying on the wide latitude afforded to it to oversee collegiate athletics. However, the Supreme Court appears poised to press the NCAA as to why it deserves a special exemption from federal anti-trust law.

The DOJ’s desire to intervene in Alston is consistent with its recent efforts to establish the federal government’s position on anti-trust issues surrounding amateurism in collegiate athletics. Indeed, the DOJ’s anti-trust concerns indefinitely delayed the NCAA’s historic vote on student-athlete name, image, and likeness rights, originally scheduled to take place this past January. The DOJ is expected to remain a significant player as the landscape of student-athlete rights continues to evolve.

Jackson Lewis’ Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group will continue to monitor the progress of this landmark case and its potential impact on college sports. Please feel free to reach out to any member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group with any questions you may have. 

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.