On Thursday, the 18 members of the NCAA’s Division I board of directors voted 16-2 to allow the five richest conferences to play by their own rules, at least a little bit.
Those who have been advocating this “reform” — especially the athletic directors and conference commissioners of the Big 5 conferences — have talked endlessly about how it is all about giving the athletes at the 65 big-time schools that make up their conferences a better deal.
If only. To be sure, the new Division I plan would give the players some help that they haven’t had before. The schools would be able to offer their athletes a small stipend so their athletic scholarships would cover the “full cost of attendance.” They could pass rules giving their athletes better medical insurance. The players could gain the ability to hire agents and advisers while they are still playing college ball. And so on.
But these changes hardly constitute wholesale reform. Rather, the big conferences thought they were doing the minimum they could get away with to make their problems go away, even as lawsuits have been bearing down on them, a union drive has taken place among the Northwestern University football players, and critics have given full-throated voice to the enormous inequities in big-time college football and men’s basketball, the two sports that generate billions of dollars for everyone in college athletics except the athletes themselves.
Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12, admitted as much to my colleague Juliet Macur the other day. He told her, as she put it in her New York Times column on Friday, that the conferences “had to make a pre-emptive move to try to save themselves.” Precisely.
As it turns out, it didn’t work. On Friday, in California, Judge Claudia Wilken, who presided over the so-called O’Bannon case in June, ruled that, by limiting the amount of scholarship money the players could get, the NCAA was in violation of the nation’s antitrust laws. She ruled that not only should players get the full cost of attendance, but that trust funds should be set up for players that could contain $5,000 a year. That may not sound like much, but according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers I spoke to, it could add up to some $300 million.
In a recent article on the sports website Deadspin, the economist Andy Schwarz shrewdly noted that there are actually two very distinct schools of NCAA critics. He called them Team Reform and Team Market.
Team Reform, he wrote, consists of those who believe that college sports have gotten out of hand, and are not reflective of the values of higher education. They want to put the genie back in the bottle — and they are unlikely to be happy with the judge’s decision.
Team Market, to which Schwarz (and I) belong, believes that there’s nothing all that wrong with commercialized college sports — which has tens of millions of followers, after all — so long as the value, as he puts it, goes to the value creators, which most definitely include the players. Team Market is thrilled with the judge’s decision.
The NCAA and the big-time college sports establishment are not terribly worried about Team Reform, which has generally been toothless and has no real way to effect its agenda. But they have long been terrified of Team Market, which has the potential to truly change the nature of college sports. The O’Bannon case is only the first lawsuit to go to trial; there are other antitrust lawsuits coming down the pike that could force even bigger changes.