The NCAA is headed to court. But it's not to watch a March Madness basketball game. The college sports association is being sued in federal court in New Jersey. A group of current and former college athletes, led by high-profile sports lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, has filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association and five major college sports conferences for restricting the amount students can earn playing Division I sports.

It's the "most direct challenge yet to the NCAA's longstanding economic model," said Tom Farrey, ESPN reporter and director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program.

The plaintiffs want monetary damages as well as a declaration that the practices of the defendants -- which include the NCAA, Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 -- violate federal antitrust laws.
 
So how would competitive pay affect college sports? The NCAA declined to comment for this story, but critics say a free market would take away the amateur nature of college sports.

It could also result in more money going to a small number of athletes who have high value to colleges and universities. "In an open market, a school wouldn't pay much for a tennis player to come and play for them," said Farrey. "They would pay a lot more for the next Johnny Manziel."
 
But even if players do win higher pay, Farrey says he's not convinced fans will stop showing up. "I'm a bit skeptical of the fact that people are going to just tune out to college sports if the players are getting a little bit more," Farrey added. "They haven't tuned out  because coaches are now getting 5 to 8 million dollars a year."
 
To hear WHYY Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn's conversation with Tom Farrey, ESPN reporter and director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society program, click the audio above.