WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed on Wednesday to decide whether the N.C.A.A. had violated federal antitrust laws by restricting what college athletes could be paid.
In May, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that the N.C.A.A. was not free to limit compensation and benefits tied to education for Division I football and basketball players.
The court rejected the N.C.A.A.’s argument that compensating athletes would alienate sports fans. “Uncapping certain education-related benefits would preserve consumer demand for college athletics just as well as the challenged rules do,” Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
“Such benefits are easily distinguishable from professional salaries,” he wrote, as they are linked to education and could be provided in kind rather than in cash. “The record furnishes ample support,” Judge Thomas added, “that the provision of education-related benefits has not and will not repel college sports fans.”
In urging the Supreme Court to hear an appeal, lawyers for the N.C.A.A. wrote that “the decision will transform student-athletes into professionals, eliminating the pro-competitive distinction between college and professional sports.”
“Consumers will likely come to view N.C.A.A. athletics as just another form of minor league sports,” the brief said.
Lawyers for the athletes rejected what they called “sky-is-falling rhetoric” and said the compensation at issue was modest, including only “benefits like computers, science equipment, musical instruments, postgraduate scholarships, tutoring, study abroad, academic awards and internships.”
While the appeals court’s ruling “is of great consequence to the student-athletes whose work and sacrifice drive the multibillion-dollar industry that is N.C.A.A. Division I football and basketball,” the brief said, it does not allow outright payments to the players.
“Nor does it,” the brief said, “require any school to provide these kinds of education-related benefits or prevent an individual conference from restricting such benefits if it chooses. In short, it simply enables individual schools and conferences to compete among themselves.”
The N.C.A.A. — which has about 1,100 member schools, most of them far removed from the bright lights and big money of top-tier competitions — welcomed the Supreme Court’s agreement to hear the case.
“The N.C.A.A. and its members continue to believe that college campuses should be able to improve the student-athlete experience without facing never-ending litigation regarding these changes,” Donald M. Remy, the association’s chief legal officer, said in a statement.
The association has been under siege in recent years, with one state after another considering proposals to allow student-athletes to profit from their fame. Members are expected to vote on new rules on the subject — known as name, image and likeness — in 2021, even as N.C.A.A. officials continue to look to Congress for relief that has not come yet.
The Supreme Court will probably hear arguments in the new case, National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Alston, No. 20-512, in the spring, with a decision expected by July.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Shawne Alston, a former West Virginia University running back. His lawyers said that he and the other plaintiffs had been exploited.
“The N.C.A.A. and its member conferences and schools receive billions of dollars every year through the hard work, sweat and sometimes broken bodies of student-athletes,” their brief said.
“Coaches, assistant coaches and athletic directors take millions in salaries,” the brief said. “Yet the schools have agreed among themselves to limit what student-athletes may receive for their work in generating these extraordinary revenues. The agreements among these schools represent a classic horizontal restraint of trade — an agreement among competitors to limit how much they will have to expend to compete for talent and labor.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting from Atlanta.