Supreme Court ruling to change landscape of college athletics

Photo: rocor, C.C. 2.0

Did you hear that rumble?

It was the landscape of college athletics changing before our very eyes.

It was a tectonic shift of the magnitude not felt in these parts since the New Madrid earthquake on Feb.7, 1812 that left the Mississippi River flowing north instead of its usual south.

Maybe, I’m exaggerating a little bit, but then again, maybe not.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 9-0 decision Monday that the way the NCAA has been doing business all our lives is unconstitutional in a landmark antitrust case.

The ruling ended the NCAA’s right to limit benefits paid to athletes that are related to education, and seriously questioned the governing body’s ability to limit benefits provided for athletes by its members at all.

So, essentially, college athletics is dealing with a whole new ballgame in what it can and cannot provide for its students-athletes. Prior to the ruling, athletics programs were allowed to provide the basic cost of attendance — including room and board and some incidentals — for college athletes on scholarship.

Division I men’s or women’s basketball or Bowl Subdivision football student-athletes now will be able to receive benefits from their schools that include cash or cash-equivalent awards based on academics or graduation.

Among the other benefits that schools also can offer are scholarships to complete undergraduate or graduate degrees at any school and paid internships after athletes have completed their collegiate sports eligibility.

Universities or athletic programs are not required to provide those benefits to athletes. Conferences can impose limits or prohibitions on benefits if their members choose to do so; however, the conferences cannot act in unison to so.

So the Power Five conferences are not allowed to work together to create a level playing field of benefits to provide for their athletes. Each conference must come up with their own rules.

The easiest example of how this might work is looking back to last year and how the individual conferences decided to play football during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SEC moved to a 10-game, all-conference schedule that started in mid-September. The ACC had a similar format but started their season earlier. The Big 12 played a 10-game conference schedule along with one nonconference opponent.

The Big Ten and the Pac 12 initially decided not to play in the fall before reversing their decisions after seeing that the other major conferences were able to play somewhat safely.

Each conference came up with their own COVID-19 testing procedures and polices. Attendance for ballgames was governed by state mandates. Things worked out fairly well.

Maybe the same will happen with the new Supreme Court ruling?

The conferences will not be able to work together on establishing a baseline for how athletes are compensated, but no doubt, the conferences will pay attention to what the other leagues are doing in an attempt to stay competitive.

It is absolutely too early to know how this will all turn out, but this could very well be a deathblow to the NCAA as we know it as a true governing body for all of college athletics.

The whole idea of the NCAA was to create a uniform national platform for universities to compete against one another in athletics. While Monday’s ruling only deals with compensation for students-athletes, it sets a precedent against nearly everything else the NCAA does.

Is that good or bad?

For the SEC and the other major conferences, it could be good, although it certainly makes the demands on the conference offices that much greater.

As for compensating athletes beyond the cost of attendance, again, it is anyone’s guess on how things will develop. It will be up to the conferences to govern those decisions rather than the NCAA.

Some universities might opt to follow Notre Dame and become an independent so that it can run its program exactly how it wants. There has long been the threat of Texas becoming an independent, but then again there is strength in numbers.

Could this prompt a further consolidation of the college game?

There was a suggestion floating around various social media platforms that the so called “Top 32 Programs” might bolt from their various conferences to create a super conference that would be split into divisions and play by its own set of rules.

Such a move sounds all the more likely based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, but I do expect individual programs and conferences to be very careful as they move forward. Too much change, too quickly might kill the golden goose.

It truly is going to be interesting to see how athletes will be compensated. The money is there, at least with the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame. Instead of investing in newer and better facilities and outlandish contracts for head coaches, more of the cash is now going to flow to the athletes.

While in many ways that is a good thing, it does create uncomfortable questions about the values of stars, starters, backups, and squadsmen.

Does a backup quarterback get paid as much or more than a starting offensive lineman? Is an All-SEC nose guard paid as well as an All-SEC shooting guard?

Are there bonuses for making All-conference or All-American?

What if a player begins the season as a starter, but then is demoted? Would that change his pay scale? What about a wide receiver who is moved to safety? Is the pay comparable?

How are injured players compensated and taken care of?

Football, basketball and at some schools baseball tote the note for all the other sports. Is it fair to football players that money they generate supports athletes in less popular or less monetized college sports under the new ruling?

That and dozens of other difficult questions are ones that athletic administrators are now tasked with solving, as if their jobs weren’t difficult enough already.

How will all of this affect the University of Arkansas in the ever competitive SEC?

I guess all we can do is sit back and watch, but college athletics is in for some huge changes with this decision and the name- and likeness-compensation issue that is in the courts.