On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NCAA can't enforce limits on education-related benefits that schools provide to their athletes, providing some insight into the future of compensation for college athletes.
All nine justices sided with Shawne Alston, the lead plaintiff in the case and a former football player at West Virginia University, who argued that the NCAA’s caps on education-related benefits violated federal antitrust laws.
"Based on what I had heard about the Justices' questions at the oral argument, the result is not really a surprise," said Lissa Broome, a professor at the UNC School of Law and the University's Faculty Athletics Representative to the ACC and the NCAA.
Currently, the scholarship money that colleges can offer is capped at the cost of attending the school. This ruling suggests that colleges will now be able to offer athletes extra money to cover other educational assets like study-abroad programs and graduate scholarships.
What makes this case particularly compelling, though, is that it could open the door for challenges to the NCAA rule that prohibits college athletes from being paid.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that "there are serious questions whether the NCAA's remaining compensation rules can pass muster under ordinary rule of reason scrutiny."
"This language obviously invites further challenges," Broome said. "Whether there will be legislation or a negotiated agreement between the NCAA and student-athletes or additional legal challenges remains to be seen."
The ruling affects the NCAA's ability to limit education-related benefits, but not sports conferences like the ACC.
"The ACC will continue to evaluate the Supreme Court decision that was delivered this morning," ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said in a statement. "The ruling by the Justices provides clarity surrounding educationally based benefits and we look forward to engaging our conference membership in our efforts to best serve and support our student-athletes."
The decision was delivered concurrent to changes that are being made to college athletes' ability to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). Pressure has mounted on the NCAA to act as U.S. states began passing legislation to allow college athletes to profit from NIL.
Supporters of NIL say it's unfair for the NCAA to make over $1 billion in revenue per year while athletes are left unpaid. Opponents argue that it would destroy the amateurism of college sports.
Currently, six states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas — have NIL laws which are set to go into effect July 1. College athletes in states with NIL legislation would be able to follow state law free from NCAA jurisdiction.
CBS Sports' Dennis Dodd reported that the NCAA Council was awaiting a decision in the Supreme Court case before moving forward with NIL discussions of their own. The council will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday, and if legislation is passed it will need final approval from the NCAA Board of Governors, which meets on June 28.
The ACC was one of multiple athletic conferences to propose an alternative to the NCAA legislation that is currently being considered. The alternative proposal would provide less guidance and put more power into the hands of member institutions, which would mitigate the threats of future lawsuits.
"The Court also made it clear that the preferred pathway for resolving these issues is in the legislative process, as opposed to the courts, and we look forward to continuing our dialog with members of Congress to support our nearly 10,000 student-athletes," Phillips said in his statement.
With the landscape of college sports changing at such a rapid pace, athletic directors like UNC's Bubba Cunningham have been scrambling to prepare for the future of NIL in college sports.
"Carolina will continue to work to provide our students a great educational experience while participating in intercollegiate athletics," Cunningham said in a statement following the ruling. "The economic model may change, and we will look for innovative ways to modify our program as this new era of college athletics begins."
In April, Carolina Athletics unveiled a new group licensing program that would allow former UNC athletes from the basketball and women's soccer teams to profit from their marketability.
And earlier this week, UNC announced LAUNCH, a program designed to "teach Tar Heels how to elevate their platform and provide tools to enhance their personal brand." The athletics program has partnered with marketing companies Altius Sports Partners, COMPASS and INFLCR in their goal of supporting Tar Heel athletes in the NIL era.
While college athletes are not likely to be receiving paychecks anytime soon, expect them to start cashing in as more branding opportunities are made available to them. But just what those opportunities will look like in Chapel Hill will remain uncertain.