The once staid world of college sports, its popularity long fueled by familiarity, now is fraught with ambiguity.
Dramatic change is underway, and the accompanying discomfort goes beyond any unrest fans might feel about the Big Ten now having 14 teams with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. College administrators and power brokers are wrangling with redefining the amateur sports model, which took on a new shape in recent days after two momentous decisions were made in-house and out.
The most dramatic occurred on Friday, when U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA’s restriction of compensation to college athletes for use of their names, images and likenesses violates the nation’s antitrust laws.
Her historic ruling came one day after the nation’s five wealthiest conferences — including the Big Ten — were granted unprecedented autonomy when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a new governing model.
Fallout from these decisions will play out in the coming months under the backdrop of possible further change forced upon college sports.
Six other class-action antitrust lawsuits are pending against the NCAA, which is under increasing congressional inquiry. Later this year, the National Labor Relations Board is expected to rule on an appeal of an earlier decision by its Chicago office that granted union rights to the Northwestern football team.
“These are challenging times because of the changes and potential changes,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said last month. “There’s some anxiety and apprehension that goes with what we’re faced with. But at the same time, it’s exciting and kind of fun because I think some of the outcomes of the change will be significantly beneficial to our student-athletes.”
Smith declined to comment about Wilken’s ruling on Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, which is expected to appeal her decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“I think we’re at the first chapter of many chapters to unfold,” said Greg Kirstein, an Ohio State sports law adjunct professor. “The NCAA is going to have a position after studying the ruling. People on the players’ side are going to view it as emancipation starts now. That might be a little quick.”
Wilken’s ruling means Football Bowl Subdivision and Division I men’s basketball players are free to be paid for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Her injunction, however, allows the NCAA to set a cap — no less than $5,000 for every year an athlete remains academically eligible — on the amount of money to be held in a trust fund payable to athletes once they graduate or conclude their athletic eligibility.
“It’s a decent compromise,” Kirstein said. “This does not make the amateurism model go away. It just says here’s a different way you have to act about the use of names, images and likenesses. Players are still not being paid for athletic performance. That’s why she’s holding money up until they graduate or their eligibility is over. Otherwise, it would detract from the educational mission.”
The NCAA is intent on maintaining that education-based model by redefining it from within, which led to the new governance structure that gives increased voting power to the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences.
Those five conferences and their 65 member schools are now empowered to create legislation that provides their athletes a stipend, possibly ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 a year, to help them cover the full cost of attendance. Athletes also could be granted new medical coverage, as well as four-year scholarships.
“We have a (governance) model to provide more financial resources,” Smith said. “We need to use that model and stay away from pay-for-play, where you have to actually have a check that’s related to your performance on the field, in the pool or on the court.”
Armed with a new approved governance structure, college sport’s five largest revenue-producing conferences now must take their increased autonomy and embark on the arduous task of enacting specific rules to fit their needs. The five power conferences will have until Oct. 1 to submit their initial autonomy legislation, which would then be considered at the NCAA convention in January.
If passed, the new rules likely would take effect in the 2015-16 academic year.
Smith said the stipend to cover cost of attendance will be the first legislation to be addressed, and Ohio State is prepared to take on that annual projected cost of $1.65 million.
“There’s no question. We’re just going to do it,” Smith said. “That may mean I have to cut over here and cut over there. But I’m going to do it. It’s not an issue.”
It will be an issue for many universities outside the five power conferences. They might choose not to provide a stipend, or its various amounts determined by schools’ financial-aid offices. That could become a recruiting issue, further widening the competitive gap in Division I.
For decades, NCAA rules were aimed at creating a level playing field for all members of Division I, which now totals 347 schools, despite the vast differences among their athletic budgets.
The new governance model shows less concern for competitive balance by in essence acknowledging the financial gap between the 65 universities in the five wealthiest conferences and the other leagues, such as the Mid-American Conference.
“This evolution of the group of five,” said Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, “is really an attempt for the first time to say here are 65 schools who have big stadiums, who generate significant amounts of revenue, and who certainly have a vast majority of the marketable players who have more of a national appeal. We’ve got to create some rules and some standards for programs that are specific to that group.”
Creating those rules could pose challenging, even among the upper crust of college sports.
“The reality is there are differences among the 65,” Smith said. “There are haves and have-nots even in the 65, so to speak, that may not be supportive of something we (at OSU) just may have to do.”
One potential sticking point to be vetted in the coming months regards how to improve health care provided to student-athletes, especially in light of Northwestern football players being granted the right to unionize.
“We need a health-care model,” Smith said. “We need to talk about how to do that from an economic point of view. Should each individual school do their thing? Or in our conference, with 14 schools, do we aggregate all of our athletes and work with an insurance company so every school has the same insurance company to take care of our athletes when they have injuries and take care of them when they leave?”
Smith plans to speak throughout the fall with the head coaches of Ohio State’s 36 varsity sports about the possibility of granting four-year scholarships to all athletes. OSU offers four-year deals in six sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s tennis, women’s gymnastics and women’s volleyball. He’s undecided on expanding that list, although it has been recommended by Big Ten presidents and already implemented at Indiana.
“It’s one of those challenges I think everybody is trying to figure out,” Smith said.
All the issues headed to legislative debate could be impacted by the federal judge’s decision two days ago, by a forthcoming NLRB decision on unionization and by pending lawsuits against the NCAA.
“The next year in college athletics will be a year of momentous change,” Brandon said. “With it will come momentous challenge. Fasten your seat belt.”