During the apogee of March Madness, when Americans were transfixed with watching kids throw basketballs around, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Shawne Alston v. NCAA, a case that potentially could change the nature of American intercollegiate athletics. Alston, a West Virginia U. basketball player, and several others sued the athletic cartel, the NCAA.

I read several press accounts all concluding that the justices showed much skepticism about the NCAA’s arguments against increasing compensation of college athletics, considering current practices a troubling financial exploitation of our youth. At the same time, however, they seem concerned with the implications of completely removing constraints on paying kids to play college football and basketball, the only sports commercially lucrative. They seem at least partially sympathetic to the NCAA’s argument that paying college athletes ends the amateur nature of college sports that makes it uniquely attractive. NCAA’s attorney Seth Waxman agreed that “consumers enjoy watching unpaid people play sports.” (Just as sizable numbers often attend high school sporting events).

In competitive labor markets, workers are usually paid roughly what economists call their “marginal revenue product”, revenue that the worker’s labors adds to the employer’s income. Movie stars and pop singers make millions since the public will pay a lot to see and hear them. Similarly, in professional football and basketball, NFL or NBA stars add millions in revenues to their teams, and are paid accordingly. In the NBA or NFL, often a superstar player makes $10 million a year, while his coach has to miserably subsist on a $3-4 million pittance. The top players make a multiple of what their supposed “bosses” (coaches) earn.

Power Five conference college football and basketball superstars, however, earn little in the form of cash, and, well under $100,000 annually in benefits (tuition, room, board, etc.) while their coaches sometimes earn $5 million a year—50 times as much. A large part of the “profits” college teams make from paying players nearly nothing goes to coaches and other adults. Restraining labor market competition exploits adolescents to benefit adults. It also disproportionately hurts blacks to the benefit of whites dominating coaching.

Interestingly, the skepticism over current arrangements was widespread across the Supreme Court’s considerable ideological spectrum, with, for example, Elena Kagan (”these are competitors all getting together with total market power fixing prices”) showing perhaps as much skepticism as, say, Brett Kavanaugh or Clarence Thomas (”coaches salaries have ballooned.” )

At the same time, there was some uneasiness about radically altering things, perhaps most clearly expressed by Chief Justice John Roberts, but also by others such as Stephen Breyer (”I worry a lot about judges getting into the business how an amateur sport should be run”) and Sonia Sotomayor (”How do we know that we’re are not just destroying the game as it exists?”) The case is NOT about paying actual salaries to players, but rather about extending current educational benefits to include such things as graduate scholarships, internships, etc. But why not salaries? But where do you draw the line?

Is losing amateur status a bit like losing virginity? Does being paid a salary turn a “volunteer, amateur player” into an athletic-academic prostitute or some other unsavory individual? The public thinks it is wrong for the NCAA to prohibit players from profiting from use of their name, image, or likeness commercially (not an issue in this case). But would their ardor for their favorite collegiate team dissolve if the players were simply paid high salaries with little pretense of earning a degree? Why shouldn’t colleges treat athletics as students with the same status as others? College football players have told me trying to be a serious student and a serious player is exhausting. Why do we do it? If we truly want amateur collegiate sports, why not go back to shorter schedules, less practice time, smaller squads, and fewer bowl games and national championship events that interrupt classroom participation?

While I seldom agree with NCAA president Mark Emmert, he is correct when he says “We’re at a very pivotal point.” The most important sporting news of 2021 may come not on the court or playing field, but in an august Washington, D.C. courtroom.