The college sports industry feels tremendous pressure to adjust its rules and ideals to the realities of contemporary commerce. In response, the National Collegiate Athletic Association took action on Thursday to give more independence to its 65 richest and most powerful universities—the ones with football and basketball teams that contend for national championships.
Before we get into the fine print, though, let’s savor a juicy bit of data generated by my friends at Bloomberg News: “In current broadcast contracts alone, the NCAA and its five richest leagues—the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big 10, Pac-12, and Southeastern conferences—are guaranteed more than $31 billion.”
That’s $31 billion—due over a period of years, sure—but still, a lot of dough. The scramble for bigger shares of that cash pile explains the turmoil within the NCAA. Here are four blunt points about what the lords of college sport were up to at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis:
1. Placating the schools with the most lucrative sports programs. That was the main motive behind a shift in governance that will allow the five “power conferences” more autonomy to provide additional money and better health coverage to their football and basketball players. NCAA President Mark Emmert praised the changes as helping “better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree.” Make no mistake, though: The accommodation of the most powerful conferences comes under the explicit threat that, in the absence of greater autonomy, those five sub-groups would walk away from the NCAA, taking their monster television contracts with them.
2. Trying to buy room to maneuver in response to athlete lawsuits. A second reason the NCAA is scrambling like a quarterback facing a fierce pass rush is that the association has to deal with a wave of suits seeking better treatment—including more money—for the athletes whose skills move the whole college sports industry. Whether the improved benefits the power conferences say they’re going to adopt will satisfy the lawyers pushing those suits is far from obvious. I predict that the answer will be a loud “no,” punctuated by a Bronx cheer. “The NCAA is talking about a couple thousand dollars more for players,” Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the College Athletes Players Association, told me before the NCAA vote in Indianapolis. “That’s not going to cut it. The suits are going to move ahead, and much bigger change is coming.” Huma is advising the legal team behind the most aggressive of the antitrust actions pending against the NCAA, and his group is leading a separate campaign to unionize college football players.
3. Wait. Is “amateurism” dead? Are college players going to get paid? Let’s answer the second question first. At most, the NCAA’s fiddling yesterday means that the biggest sports schools may augment existing scholarships with additional stipends to cover the full cost of attending college. As Huma noted, the amounts in question will probably range from $1,000 to $4,000 per athlete, per school year—depending on the university. The NCAA’s Emmert has made it clear that the association will not countenance a competitive market for athletic talent. Emmert argues that turning the NCAA’s football and basketball operations into semi-professional leagues would drive away fans and cause many universities to drop Division I sports. In contrast, the suits against the NCAA demand that college sports move in the direction of the free agency practiced in the National Football League and National Basketball Association. This fight isn’t over yet.
As for “amateurism,” it’s a malleable concept that the NCAA defines for itself. If you think a nationally televised game pitting Louisiana State against Alabama, with all the corporate dollars sloshing around, looks like amateur sports—well, so does the NCAA.
4. What’s next? Much additional NCAA internal procedural jockeying and possibly a push to override the autonomy initiative engineered by universities with lesser sports programs. Those second-class citizens don’t want to see the existing caste system made even more extreme.
Remember that $31 billion. That’ll keep the pot boiling.