Think of the NCAA like the Hoover Dam. It’s big, it’s impassive, and it has spent decades holding something back: Money, more and more of it each year.
Now the facade is starting to crack. The edifice is starting to crumble. There’s no stopping it. The flood is coming. And that’s a good thing.
Thursday’s vote to allow the five power conferences the autonomy to make their own rules is yet another chip away at the feudal system of college athletics. A little more money is going to slip through the hands of administrators and bowl execs and down to the athletes who actually generate the income, now that the big-bucks conferences will have the power to dole it out as they see fit.
Just like the O’Bannon lawsuit, which looks likely to clear the way for athletes to collect when their likenesses are used to make money for other people, maybe even directly from television contracts, it’s another chink in the NCAA’s phony amateur armor.
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Just like Indiana’s bill of rights for athletes, which guarantees scholarships and expanded health care, or North Carolina’s Complete Carolina, which allocates additional resources to helping former athletes complete their degrees, it’s another acknowledgment that the needs of athletes have long gone underserved.
Just like the push by Northwestern football players to unionize, it’s another attempt to find a new model for the relationship between school and athlete.
This so-called autonomy keeps the power conferences within the umbrella of the NCAA, but it’s merely the first very, very small change to the governing structure. The NCAA as we know it is dying. What takes its place, even if it retains the name, remains uncertain, but autonomy is the first step into whatever new direction we’re headed.
It’s only the first step, though. There’s still a long, long way to go. Back when there weren’t billions of dollars in the system, a free education was fair compensation for players’ on-field and on-court labor. Now, with television money flowing from the spigot, the stakes have been raised. Players deserve their cut. How to get it to them is an open debate, and one not to be settled soon, but the terms have been set.
College athletes also deserve a guarantee of lifetime medical coverage for concussions and other chronic injuries suffered in their school days. That has to happen as well. It will. Autonomy helps clear the path.
This isn’t going to cure all the ills in college sports. Despite worrying questions about Mary Willingham’s credibility, none of them changes the point she has been trying to make all along, which is that unqualified students were being shoved through the university without being educated, exploited entirely for their athletic ability.
Autonomy won’t fix that. Autonomy itself won’t fix anything. It’s merely an opportunity, an opening for change.
So far, it’s just a word. What it actually means, what impact it actually has, is up to the commissioners of the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, and the presidents of the schools in those conferences. All it does is give them the freedom to set their own rules. It remains up to them to use this power to effect change, although they have never been under more pressure to act.
What the power conferences do, the other Division I schools will surely follow to the extent of their financial resources, and the same is true on a lesser scale of Division II and Division III schools.
The great monolith of the NCAA has held back change for too long. The dam is breaking. Not today, not tomorrow, but the cracking and crumbling has begun.