The NCAA’s $2.7B settlement officially ended the amateur athlete model. It’s about time.

Amateur athletics at the collegiate level is over. Thursday made it official. The NCAA and the government reached a $2.7 billion settlement over the House v. NCAA antitrust suit. Major conferences approved the agreement. Various specifics must be worked out, but the death knell on collegiate amateurism has sounded.

What does it mean? It means conferences and colleges must compensate former collegiate athletes for name, image and likeness and broadcast revenue. It also means current and future athletes at power conferences can be compensated via revenue sharing, from an estimated $20 million a year pot, starting with the 2025-26 academic year. Athletes will be paid directly by the school. And not a moment too soon.

After all, the amateur athlete model is long outdated. College athletics has been professional sports at the collegiate level for quite some time. There is too much money involved for it to be otherwise. Multi-million dollar coaching salaries, administrative salaries, facility outlays. The Big Ten earned $880 million in revenue for fiscal year 2023, overtaking the SEC. For the athlete not to receive a piece of that financial pie is grossly unfair.

You ask: Doesn’t the athlete receive a free college education? Isn’t that worth something? Yes and yes, especially with college tuition skyrocketing. But given the revenue being generated by the sports and games themselves, as frequent NCAA critic Jay Bilas noted, “a scholarship is the LEAST a player is worth.”

Case in point: According to a recent report, the Big 12 is paying former commissioner Bob Bowlsby $17.2 million after retirement. So much for the NCAA’s argument there’s not enough money to pay the athletes. Please.

NCAA president Charlie Baker gives a television interview during a game between the UCLA Bruins and the South Carolina Gamecocks in the NCAA women’s Sweet 16 on March 25, 2023, in Greenville, South Carolina.
NCAA president Charlie Baker gives a television interview during a game between the UCLA Bruins and the South Carolina Gamecocks in the NCAA women’s Sweet 16 on March 25, 2023, in Greenville, South Carolina.

It didn’t have to come to this. Too long in denial, the NCAA refused to plan for the inevitable. It fought every initiative in which college athletes might be compensated. It wasn’t until the NCAA began losing court cases that it reluctantly changed its ways. Even then, it has reportedly spent $15 million on lobbying efforts to ask Congress to grant an antitrust exemption.

Said Notre Dame president John I. Jenkins this week: “Congress must pass legislation that will preempt the current patchwork of state laws; establish that our athletes are not employees, but students seeking college degrees and provide protection from further antitrust lawsuits that will allow colleges to make and enforce rules that will protect our student-athletes and help ensure competitive equity among our teams.”

That’s rich coming from Notre Dame, which signed an exclusive television deal with NBC in 1991 and receives $50 million a year from the network.

What does the settlement mean for the future of college sports? Over a 10-year window, schools must provide funds for past compensation. We could see ticket prices rise and more pressure put on boosters. We could also see private equity groups taking financial stakes in college athletic programs. According to reports, the private equity group RedBird Capital Partners has already had discussions with 50 colleges.

Contractual agreements are another likely outcome. If schools are going to share revenue with athletes, they will want a commitment in return — that the athlete will remain a part of the program for the length of the contract. That could lead to unionization by the athletes.

Is college sports broken? No, it was broken before. As Purdue coach Matt Painter said during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, selected athletes were being paid previously under the table. Now, there will be opportunity for everyone. Not equal opportunity — “I expect the athletes who are generating the most money would get the greatest economic return,” plaintiff attorney Jeffrey Kessler told The Athletic — but opportunity just the same.

Will college sports survive? Of course. Despite cries NIL and the transfer portal would ruin college sports, television ratings and interest remain strong. CBS, NBC and Fox are paying the Big Ten $8 billion over the next seven years. ESPN is paying the SEC $300 million annually over the next 10 years. ESPN is paying $7.8 billion to televise the College Football Playoff over the next six years.

Finally, college athletes will receive a share of that money. It’s about time.

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