Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
In his 2020 book The Splendid and the Vile, author Erik Larson noted during World War II, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructed anti-aircraft gun crews to fire at German bombers flying at an altitude exceeding the range of Britain’s defensive firepower. The reason? The sound created by ground-based guns gave the English hope.
On a different battlefield, the NCAA has lost a lot lately, making one pressing question logical: Is a there a single Churchillian figure able to provide university presidents with confidence for America’s intercollegiate sports future?
Since June 2021, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 ruling that the association violated antitrust laws by determining limits on educational benefits, the NCAA has been regrouping. Now, on the West Coast, plaintiffs have sued USC, UCLA, the Pac-12 and NCAA, leaning heavily on the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) guidance that college athletes can unionize and seek formal labor protection for their services.
While there is no NCAA Players Association yet, the ground shakes with discussions about potentially viewing NCAA athletes as employees at the schools currently providing tuition, room, board, books, clothing, a “Cost of Attendance” stipend and, for some, $5,980 in educational benefits.
“We’ve been on the defensive as the NCAA forever,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently. “I can’t remember when we were ever on the offensive.”
That sounds like a veiled call for a hero. Someone like diplomat Condoleezza Rice or billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs, or a progressive conference commissioner like the Big East’s Val Ackerman, who can realign athletic allegiances while simultaneously reimagining college sports.
“I’m not sure there is any one single person out there who can tackle that challenge,” said Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA. “It will take a village and probably Federal intervention to sort out all the legal complexities involved.”
Could a new leader better serve the upscale village neighborhood made up of the 69 NCAA schools in the Power Five conferences (SEC, Big 10, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12), while keeping the word “college” in college sports? Or are forces already mobilizing within powerful football conferences to secede from the NCAA and design a league concept where athletes take classes they like (or are recommended by their agents) while receiving salaries negotiated based on performance, position or potential.
Such a scenario might require a player draft (promoting the perception of parity) and the creation of a players association, but a college “pro” league might allow the schools involved to remove academic standards for players and reduce certain liabilities.
The above scenario would undoubtedly face significant headwinds such as Title IX, as well as the possibility longstanding fans might reject teams sponsored by universities largely because “Saturday’s athletes” no longer attended classes Monday through Friday.
It generates this enigma: Should all of the university presidents, whose predecessors once requested the creation of the NCAA, continue kicking the proverbial amateur athlete concept down the road? Especially when the challenge of running college sports was recently shifted to the leaders of Division I?
This much is true: We’ve reached the Gladwellian tipping point where player compensation, long restricted, may now trump the ostensible intent to educate. Said another way, recent legal judgments have more or less neutered the NCAA’s amateurism model. But have they also killed the educational model?
Recruited college athletes who can monetize their athletic prowess via NIL and transfer at will—and potentially unionize—may soon be able to choose whether four years of education, housing, meals, and NIL contracts are worth less than turning professional, possibly at State U.
In 1909, there was no NFL or NBA. In 1949, a professional football or basketball player was unlikely to make enough money playing professionally to avoid working a second job. By the 1980s, a few professional athletes made enough money to enjoy lifelong financial security.
Even before 1984 (the year the Supreme Court stripped the NCAA of its authority over regular season broadcast contracts and deregulated the television market), NCAA athletes in numerous sports used college as a pathway to lucrative pro careers. Further, national and regional broadcasts of college sporting events showed college athletes could build themselves into “brands” before they sought to join the NFL on NBA.
The timely question for college presidents now, those men and women paid to serve their universities first, is whether to create a “super league” where players are paid for their performances and treated as seasonal employees, or build “Super Ivy Leagues” committed to diplomas and educational outcomes.
In the former, schools willing and able to afford a professional model, aware of antitrust laws and Title IX obligations, might design breakaway enterprises where powerful university athletic departments sponsor a handful of sports teams.
In the latter, either as a matter of economics, principle or both, university presidents might exit the arms race, and instead build academically elite conferences that preserve their educational charters.
Either way, 21st century realities mean an empire of athletic enterprise is under siege, and a visionary hero might come in handy.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) to the ACC and NCAA.