That’s the fear, anyway. In reality, not much will change.
First, the case for hand-wringing. As Taylor Branch detailed so thoroughly in The Atlantic three years ago, the current college sports economy is rooted in amateurism. It’s basically price-fixing. A cartel of schools—dub it a union, but only if you want to rile up House Republicans—calling itself the NCAA sets the maximum compensation for the likes of University of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston at the value of their athletic scholarships. Never mind if Alabama, Louisiana State University, and the University of Southern California are all competing for the same blue-chip high-school linebacker—thanks to amateurism, said quarterback only can be offered tuition, room and board, and not an unauthorized plate of pasta more.
For bigger and smaller schools alike, amateurism acts as a wage suppressant, allowing them to funnel every television, ticket-sale, and booster-gift dollar that doesn’t go to the on-field talent into ever-expanding facilities and executive salaries. Alabama football coach Nick Saban makes $7 million a year. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich is paid more than $1.4 million annually. Neither man is bound by the amateur code. (Similarly, the construction workers who will build the University of Kansas’s planned $17.5 million basketball-player dormitory—which figures to be to cinderblock-walled college dorms what the Batcave is to holes in the ground—likely won’t be compensated with rent and textbooks.)
Earlier this month, however, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors voted for greater power-conference “autonomy,” which basically allows the 65 schools that earn the bulk of the football television money to give athletes larger scholarships and increased medical benefits without breaking away from the association as a whole. Why the shift? Think preemptive strike. A day later, federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled in the O’Bannon case that the NCAA no longer can prevent member schools from awarding athletes cash stipends that cover the full cost of attendance, nor prohibit schools from placing a minimum of $5,000 a year into trust funds that can be accessed by football and men’s basketball players following the end of their playing eligibility.
The upshot? By the time Wilken’s ruling goes into effect in 2015-2016, coveted recruits who once could be had for the fixed price of a scholarship will now command the higher (but still fixed, alas) price of a larger scholarship and up to $25,000 in deferred compensation. Which is where the anxiety comes in.
Imagining the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a quarter-century from now, Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff paints a bleak picture:
… the other 286 Division I members soon met with financial ruin. Post-2014, when a mid-major recruiter offered a scholarship covering just tuition, books and room and board, prospects would laugh him out of the living room. And when the big boys bumped up their support every few years—“Just keepin’ up with inflation,” cracked Birmingham pork-rind baron Jocko Broadwad in ’18 —other schools were forced to follow, or at least try to. First with cash. Then with cars and clothes, because those are part of “the full cost of attendance” if a college bro’s to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the efforts of the 27 other leagues to consummate jersey and video-game deals were unavailing. Anyone condemned to play for a mid-major knew that his school had a Billiken’s chance in hell of delivering any trust-fund cash upon graduation.
So the unraveling of the NCAAs continued apace. Such former mid-major powers as Butler, Gonzaga and VCU, with no football revenue or windfall from massive TV contracts, lapsed into mediocrity. Schools like Princeton, Bucknell and Mercer, vanquishers respectively of UCLA, Kansas and Duke during Marches past, made a mess of their tournament cameos. With the upset virtually gone from the NCAAs, CBS drastically cut back its rights payments. A cluster of buildings in downtown Indianapolis have served as Section 8 housing ever since the NCAA moved what was left of its operations to Bangalore …
Wolff’s scenario is a bit extreme, likely exaggerated for effect. Still, it’s not that far off from what actual college sports administrators are saying. In a recent New York Times article, Fresno State athletic director Thomas Boeh told writer John Branch that “clearly we are moving away from parity. We are certainly moving to a Darwinian model.” Baylor University President Ken Starr—yep, that Ken Starr—informed Congress earlier this year that “if antitrust principles and collective bargaining eliminate pro-competitive limitations on payments and benefits, there may literally be no 'competitive' intercollegiate sports." Literally!