Tom Lindley

Tom Lindley

Deciphering the future of college sports given what's happened in the past week might not be as impossible as it seems if you are a third-year law student.


Short of that, figuring out the impact of a vote to allow 64 schools in the "Power Five" conferences to manage their affairs, closely followed by a federal judge’s ruling in a landmark antitrust case against the NCAA, is stupefying.

It's clear that big change is coming. Unclear is who will make the rules. Who will get compensated, and by how much? Is the student-athlete notion totally passé?

The autonomy sought by the richest five leagues – the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 plus Notre Dame – was all but guaranteed. Had they not gotten their freedom from the NCAA, the conferences were prepared to form their own association.

The big conferences are determined to give their athletes a better deal. Full cost-of-attendance stipends and the introduction of four-year scholarship guarantees are in the works. In time, restrictions limiting contact between athletes and agents will loosen. Other likely changes will allow players to seek work and travel expenses for their families so that they can attend tournaments and bowl games.

An 80-member panel, including athletes and representatives from the athletic conferences, will hammer out a plan that will face further review and approval by the conferences.

About the same time as last week's NCAA vote, the ground beneath college sports really shook from U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken's injunction in the antitrust case brought by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon.

Wilken's order prevents the NCAA from “enforcing any rules or bylaws that would prohibit its member schools and conferences from offering their FBS football or Division I basketball recruits a limited share of the revenues generated from the use of their names, images and likenesses in addition to a full grant-in-aid.”

Those following the testimony in the trial had to believe the NCAA was playing a losing hand. The simple truth was that universities were reaping millions from televising and marketing of their games. Athletes, by comparison, played the role of pauper.

The NCAA says it will appeal Wilken’s injunction, which could also draw legal challenges from attorneys who felt it didn’t go far enough. Some on the players' side favored a stronger free market for athletes to maximize their earnings potential.

Wilken’s ruling directed the NCAA to cap the amount of licensing money that may be held in a trust for players, but it prohibits that cap from being less than $5,000 for every year an athlete maintains eligibility.

One wonders what all of this will do to preserve a competitive balance – if there is such a thing – between brand-name major college powers, the ones with deep pockets, and those colleges that produce good teams but operate in the less publicized, less profitable “mid-major” realm. Those leagues - such as the Mountain West, Big East, Mid-America and others - will be allowed to collectively adopt similar rules, but the absence of major TV contracts makes that unlikely.

Repercussions are sure to follow the O'Bannon case, which worked its way through the courts for years. In a statement last week, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive referred to the recent events as an "historic evolution" but warned of Wilken's decision: “There are a number of legal questions of some significance that must be answered to fully understand the ultimate consequence of this decision, and how to comply with it.”

For example, what does all of this mean for athletes in other sports? How will they be treated? Does anyone think supporters of Title IX will remain silent and not demand equal treatment? Judge Wilken wasn’t clear if women athletes, or men in so-called minor sports. are covered.

The only thing that is clear is that chaos will reign for a while.

The big lie about college sports for years was that it wasn't big business.

The day when they could be passed off as amateurism is now gone. What's to come remains to be seen.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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