The NCAA and a group of major conferences on Friday night asked the 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals to overturn a recent ruling that the association’s limits on athlete compensation violate antitrust laws and that the association cannot limit benefits related to education for athletes playing Division I men’s or women’s basketball or Bowl Subdivision football.
In a brief notice of appeal, the NCAA and the conferences wrote that they are seeking review of U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s injunction, her findings of fact and law, her earlier summary judgment ruling “and all other orders, rulings, and decisions in this litigation.”
Two weeks ago, Wilken declined to lift the NCAA’s limits on athlete compensation that is unrelated to education — an outcome that the plaintiffs had sought and one that would have threatened to fundamentally alter the NCAA’s current amateurism system.
But she said individual conferences, rather than the NCAA, must be allowed — if they so choose — to let their schools offer athletes education-based benefits beyond a scholarship that is basically limited to covering the cost of attending college.
She appeared to open the possibility of athletes being able to receive thousands of dollars in cash or cash-equivalent awards based on academics or graduation, albeit under some constraints.
The association can limit “academic or graduation awards of incentives, provided in cash or cash-equivalent” but that limit cannot be “less than the maximum amount of compensation that an individual could receive in an academic school year in participation, championship, or other special achievement awards (combined).”
The NCAA Division I Manual shows the current limits on the value of these kinds of awards, but added together, they could provide athletes the opportunity to receive several thousand dollars worth of academically related awards. In her ruling, Wilken cited testimony placing this figure at $5,600 a year, but the amount could be even greater.
Athletes also would be allowed to offer scholarships to complete undergraduate or graduate degrees at any school, Wilken wrote.
On Friday night, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy issued a statement that read, in part: “While the District Court upheld the distinction between full-time students who play college sports and professional athletes, it erred by giving itself authority to micromanage decisions about education-related support. We believe, and the Supreme Court has recognized, that NCAA member schools and conferences are best positioned to strengthen and revise their rules to better support student-athletes, rather than forcing these issues into continuous litigation.”
One of the plaintiffs’ lead attorneys, Steve Berman, blistered the NCAA’s decision to appeal, given the association’s satisfaction that all limits on athlete compensation weren’t lifted. He also criticized the timing — late on the first Friday night of the NCAA basketball tournaments, and hours after news broke of special counsel Robert Mueller completing his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and delivering a report to Attorney General William Barr.
The appeal “belies the notion that they won,” Berman wrote in an email to USA TODAY Sports. “And the fact that they try to bury this is an affront to the notion that this is an important issue not to be hidden on a Friday night. Shame on the NCAA. It shows the hypocrisy of the puppet masters who exploit these athletes.”
Wilken is the same judge who handled the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit and found that the NCAA’s limits on what major college football and men’s basketball players can receive for playing sports “unreasonably restrain trade” in violation of antitrust laws.
That finding was upheld by a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, although the panel — by a 2-1 margin — threw out Wilken’s plan that would have allowed schools to provide athletes deferred compensation of as much as $5,000 per year. In overturning this remedy, the appellate panel said that while antitrust law requires that schools be allowed to provide athletes with scholarships that cover all of their costs of attending college, “it does not require more,” such as what it termed “cash sums untethered to educational expenses.”
Both sides appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Berkowitz on Twitter @ByBerkowitz.