SEC-Big Ten coalition lays plain who’s in charge of college sports moving forward

If there had been any doubt — and there shouldn’t have been — that a massive restructuring was coming for college athletics, June 21, 2021, should have ended such illusions.

That’s when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued a blistering concurring opinion to a case that the NCAA had just lost 9-0. That one — NCAA v. Alston — allowed student-athletes to receive any academic award money they might earn.

It was a simple case, but Kavanaugh used it to warn College Sports Inc. that it should fix its issues internally because if it came back to the Supreme Court arguing for the preservation of, well, pretty much anything, it was unlikely to find much sympathy.

“I add this concurring opinion to underscore that the NCAA’s remaining compensation rules also raise serious questions under the antitrust laws,” Kavanaugh wrote.

He said the NCAA’s argument about “amateurism” was “circular and unpersuasive” and merely a clever label to fix costs and control labor, both of which he signaled would be deemed illegal.

“Price-fixing labor is price-fixing labor,” Kavanaugh continued later. “And price-fixing labor is ordinarily a textbook antitrust problem.”

In other words, college athletics has been a lot of fun through the years, but its old model stood no chance with this new court. Whether administrators, coaches or fans wanted it, liked it or approved of it, the status quo was doomed.

Athletes as employees, revenue sharing, schools issuing contracts and, perhaps, a winnowing of the number of teams capable of competing, at least in football, was coming.

“The NCAA is not above the law,” Kavanaugh wrote.

However, rather than getting serious about serious questions, college sports leaders kept trying through the NCAA to fight a fight they were doomed to lose — focusing on establishing outdated “guardrails” and minor tweaks, fruitlessly lobbying Congress to save them and decrying the transition as the “Wild, Wild West,” like their feelings mattered.

Then, finally, came Friday — more than 2 1/2 years after Kavanaugh essentially warned that the NCAA needed to solve “some difficult policy and practical questions” or else the Supreme Court would.

NCAA president Charlie Baker (left) had his own proposal to solve college sports' issues with
NCAA president Charlie Baker (left) had his own proposal to solve college sports' issues with "Project DI." Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitt (right) and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey may have other opinions. (Tom Williams/Getty Images)

The Big Ten and the SEC — the two behemoth conferences of college sports – formed “a joint advisory group … to address the significant challenges facing college athletics and the opportunities for betterment of the student-athlete experience.”

The group has no authority to enact change and is only “a consulting body,” but make no mistake, it can quickly morph into a new NCAA. After too much stalling and too many opinions, a smaller group of the biggest stakeholders are going to make some decisions because someone must and time is ticking.

“Pressures are mounting,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Yahoo Sports' Ross Dellenger.

What comes from this is unknown, but good luck to everyone else. Hopefully this won’t turn into a super conference, casting everyone else aside.

That said, while an SEC/Big Ten partnership may not be what’s the best for all of college sports, there was seemingly no other alternative.

Something has to happen that might bring changes that might keep Kavanaugh, et al. out of the college athletics business.

If not, college sports will operate without nearly any rules.

Forget pay for play, basic tenets of sports were up in the air. This wasn’t just barreling toward, say, unlimited transfers – four and four years! – but actually unlimited eligibility – play eight, nine, 10 years as long as you remain academically eligible and keep racking up graduate degrees. Anything else is a “restraint of trade” violation.

Or who knows what else?

The NCAA is made up of over 1,000 schools in multiple divisions. Its unwieldy nature and lack of trust with each other or the institution itself has caused inertia. So it just spun its wheels, focused on the past (albeit at the request of some schools) and racked up lawsuits filed against it.

The Big Ten/SEC partnership was in the works long before this week, but that it caps this week is, perhaps, appropriate.

On Tuesday, news leaked that the NCAA enforcement staff was investigating Tennessee over an NIL inducement case that seemed comically small and unimportant considering the challenges/opportunities of this era. The school blasted back immediately — with athletic director Danny White calling it an “ill-conceived investigation,” “silly and not productive” and reliant on “old booster bylaws.”

He wasn’t wrong.

“It is clear that the NCAA staff does not understand what is happening at the campus level all over the country in the NIL space,” White said.

What followed was a lawsuit by the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia against the NCAA that seeks to end any rules against NIL collectives. It was widely cheered on by fans, who have long ago given up on the idea that the NCAA universally enforces its rules.

In Tennessee’s case, that dates back to at least 2011, when the NCAA essentially forced the firing of popular and successful basketball coach Bruce Pearl for the crime of … hosting a recruit and his dad for a cookout and then lying about it.

Maybe once that kind of thinking had credibility. It doesn’t now.

Amidst a vastly changing landscape with lawsuits headed toward Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court, another “major” investigation? Forget it. The NCAA should have long ago focused its time not on what happened with a single recruit two years ago, but how player procurement will work the next 20.

“We need to be spending our time and energy on solutions to better organize college athletics in the NIL era,” White wrote.

Like it or not, for better or for worse, that’s what this SEC/Big Ten advisory group intends to do.

Better late than by the Supreme Court.