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ASU athlete's lawsuit set stage for US Supreme Court case on 'fair pay for play'

Sam Keller took on EA Sports more than a decade ago. As a result, student athletes could turn social media into cash as soon as next school year.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this March 14, 2012, file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament college basketball game. NCAA basketball administrators apologized to the women’s basketball players and coaches after inequities between the men’s and women’s tournament went viral on social media. Administrators vowed to do better. NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt spoke on a zoom call Friday, March 19, 2021, a day after photos showed the difference between the weight rooms at the two tournaments. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

PHOENIX — College athletes’ fight for “fair pay for play” could take a big step forward Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case on compensating student-athletes, considered amateurs by the NCAA, which oversees the multibillion-dollar college sports industry.

While the case wouldn’t produce immediate benefits for college athletes, a lawsuit filed by a former Arizona State University quarterback more than a decade ago could put money in athletes’ pockets as soon as this fall. 

The Sam Keller lawsuit “was very significant,” said Professor Matthew Mitten, executive director of the National Sports Law Institute, at Marquette University in Milwaukee. 

Keller, who played his last game for ASU 15 years ago, and other former collegians won a $60 million settlement for thousands of student-athletes for the use of their likenesses in EA Sports video games. 

What became known as compensation for “NIL rights” - name, image and likeness - laid a foundation for other forms of compensation, Mitten said.

“Once you allow them to get that,” he said, “that can be used to say there’s no justification for NCAA rules limiting what schools could provide to student-athletes.”

A Supreme Court decision could trigger a “legal free-for-all,” Mitten said, as universities, the NCAA, states and Congress come to grips with compensating student-athletes.

Thanks to the NIL ruling, athletes could cash in on videos, sports camps and their large social media followings, possibly as soon as the start of the next academic year, Mitten said.

“There's a wide range of ways student-athletes can earn income,” Mitten said. 

Most of the NCAA’s 460,000 student-athletes could earn only a nominal amount, Mitten said. 

“But you’re going to have some athletes - prominent football or basketball players, probably Olympic medalists, those with large social media followings - who are going to be able to earn a potentially six-figure income.” 

Arizona is getting ready. 

Last week, Gov. Doug Ducey joined other states in signing into law rules for how student-athletes could profit.

“You don’t want different states to have different rules and give one state a competitive advantage,” Mitten said.

Now comes the potential game-changer.

Arguments Wednesday before the highest court in the land could clear the way for broader compensation for college athletes, beyond tuition room and board. 

A decision is expected by the end of June.

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