Based on a series of pending legal matters, the NCAA may be entering a period of reconception. In the O'Bannon case, now set for trial in June, a court may rule that the NCAA cannot limit the use of the images of current and former student athletes for commercial purposes. If the Northwestern University football team votes to organize a union and the Labor Board and courts uphold the ruling of the NLRB Regional Director that the players are "employees," the legal landscape of major college sports will have been radically altered. If Jeff Kessler's broad-based attack on NCAA regulations as antitrust violations succeeds, the NCAA, as we now know it, is finished.
Although college athletics are more popular than ever, the athletes who produce this brand of entertainment are restless. The current NCAA system works well for many stakeholders: college coaches of major revenue-producing sports are paid a fortune; NCAA President Mark Emmert earns $1.7 million annually, and CBS bought the product he sells for $10.8 billion. Some colleges and universities earn profits from their athletic enterprises, although most do not. For college athletes, NCAA regulations offer the opportunity to attend college at no cost, no small financial matter for most scholarship players.
The current NCAA system does not work well for everyone, however. For those who dream of playing at the professional level, the NCAA system mandates that they pursue academic studies at the same time they are learning their athletic trade. For those who think this is a win-win situation for the players, check the facts in the Northwestern University football team unionization case. The athletes bear 50-60 hours a week of meticulously scheduled "football obligations." As a result, it is virtually impossible for most scholarship athletes at Northwestern to take full advantage of the academic opportunities at that excellent institution.
What would happen to big-revenue college sports -- football and men's basketball -- if the athletes did not have to be students at the same time? What if they received a voucher that entitled them to four or five years of higher education when they completed their athletic careers? Most college athletes, of course, are not hired by NFL and NBA clubs after they complete their college careers. Some will play football in Canada and others will play basketball in Europe. For those who do obtain professional athletic employment, their career lasts, on average, about four years. Under the voucher alternative, an athlete would have the opportunity to return to his college in his mid-twenties to pursue higher education without the distraction of football or basketball.
This proposal raises significant issues. From the perspective of the NCAA, how would delayed matriculation undermine its brand of college athletics? There is something quite attractive about the image of students playing on Saturday afternoon for the alma mater before a crowd of 100,000 at the Big House. Even if that does not correlate with what actually occurs because of the incompatibility of the two roles of playing football and being a student, the NCAA can market that image.
Consider this alternative. The NCAA announces that football and basketball players will sign with a college as they do now, but, because of the realities of playing sports while attending classes, students will have an option to defer their academics for a few years. They would still be Huskies or Wolverines or part of the Crimson Tide, but attending classes would be postponed until after they complete their collegiate athletic training and their professional athletic careers. Students who wish to pursue both athletics and academics at the same time would be allowed to do so. Athletes would not be required to return to school after ending their professional careers, but most are likely to do so simply as a matter of economics.
There are many details to be worked out before this alternative conception is ready for adoption. Athletes would need financial support while fulfilling both their athletic and their delayed academic pursuits just as students do now. They would not get rich, but they would get by as most college students do. The NCAA would have to focus on issues of academic eligibility for these athletes much as they do now, because colleges should not be able to take advantage of an athlete who would not have the academic ability to later make good use of the college voucher. Finally, the NCAA would have to reexamine its amateurism regulations.
There is no indication that the NCAA is currently addressing any of these concerns or any alternatives to its "student-athlete" system. The legal environment, however, will not allow the NCAA to do nothing. Coaches teach their athletes to anticipate what their opponents will do in order to better prepare for the action to come on the field or court. It may be hard for the NCAA and its many adherents and supporters to actually believe that the end is near, but some involved with college athletics must be wise enough to anticipate what will happen if any of these three legal challenges actually succeeds. Instead of simply denouncing this barrage of litigation as "ridiculous," it is better to think carefully now about how college sports can be saved.