NCAA president addresses ACC amid increasing likelihood schools pay athletes directly

NCAA President Charlie Baker addressed ACC officials and member schools’ administrators and coaches during an extended meeting here Monday during the league’s annual spring meetings, ones convening amid the backdrop of great uncertainty surrounding the future of the conference.

The root of all of that uncertainty is money — the lack of enough of it, as far as some ACC schools are concerned, and now the conference is part of five lawsuits that will determine its future. Baker, too, knows something about lawsuits and courtrooms.

For years the NCAA has been a consistent loser in court, with each defeat further eroding an amateur model to which college sports leaders once desperately clung. Now, at last, they appear ready to accept a settlement in a case that would result in schools compensating athletes directly.

That case, commonly known as House vs. NCAA, is now expected to move college athletics closer than they’ve ever been to a true employee-employer model. Still, college sports leaders have been reluctant to fully embrace a model that’d classify athletes as employees.

A settlement in the House case, though, would likely result in conferences and schools having to pay billions in back pay to athletes, on the argument of lost revenue and earnings in the years before they could profit off their name, image and likeness. They’d reportedly be paid now, and in the future, on the basis of a revenue-sharing plan from media rights revenue.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done there,” Baker told a crowd of reporters on Monday.

But “the most important part about” a potential settlement, he said, “is it creates clarity ... on a whole bunch of issues that have been sort of roiling everybody for a while.”

“And the other thing it does, is it creates predictability and stability for schools. But it also creates tremendous opportunity for student-athletes.”

Baker said he didn’t “really have a deadline” on the completion of any settlement, but athletics directors and conference commissioners in recent months have been evaluating how much a compensation model would cost schools, both in terms of back pay and future earnings. The reality that players will be paid from schools — and not solely from NIL collectives — is part of the increased pressure on athletics departments to make as much money as possible.

Undoubtedly, too, that’s part of the reasoning behind Florida State and Clemson’s decision to sue the ACC. Both schools are seeking a way out of the league’s Grant of Rights agreement.

Baker addressed the ACC during the league’s first session of spring meetings on Monday afternoon. A meeting that was expected to last about 75 minutes instead went for almost two hours.

“Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about,” said Baker, who in March 2023 succeeded Mark Emmert as the NCAA President. The job was fraught with challenges throughout Emmert’s tenure, which was largely seen as ineffective, and college sports have only become more chaotic. Baker’s appearance at ACC meetings coincided with the league’s fight for its long term survival.

A settlement in the House case would bring clarity, as Baker said, but depending on the math involved, and how much athletes stand to earn off of lucrative media rights deals, it could — and likely will — increase the pressure on schools to keep pace with their richest peers.

Baker said he has been working toward “some basic construct” of how athlete compensation might work. If and when it happens, he said, “I think it gives a tremendous amount of benefits to student athletes at the highest resource programs. I think it creates a lot of stability and sort of clarity for schools.

“And it makes it possible for all of us to start thinking about what the next act really will look like.”