When the NCAA v. O’Bannon verdict came down this month, some experts predicted federal Judge Claudia Wilken’s ruling would have a powerful and sweeping effect in college sports. It would crack open a door that could let student-athletes earn income from their image.
But Utah State University athletic director Scott Barnes wasn’t exactly holding his breath. Before Wilken’s decision, Barnes predicted that the NCAA would lose the case initially, then appeal.
Barnes hopes, for the sake of college athletics, that someone will overturn it higher up the legal chain and save the system that has guided the NCAA to this point.
"We’ve sustained this model for 100 years, and it’s the only model in the world where intercollegiate athletics is ingrained into the fiber of a university," he said. "We absolutely should not pay players. There’s not a place for that in the current model, and I believe the current model is the right model."
Barnes is hardly alone among administrators throughout the nation — and around the state.
In a time when the NCAA is changing more quickly than ever before, schools are bracing themselves for a multitude of adjustments: with money, with student-athletes — even with the fundamental structure of the NCAA.
With changes coming — internally and potentially from the courtroom — anxiety prevails, even among the powerful in college sports. While many administrators, such as Barnes, BYU’s Tom Holmoe and Utah’s Chris Hill, agree that schools can and should provide more to college athletes, there’s a line they believe cannot and should not be crossed.
If football and men’s basketball players start getting paid atop the cost of attending college, they say, it would represent the end of an important piece of sports.
"Preserving education and preserving their chance to do those things and compete is important," Hill said. "It would be a disservice to all of a sudden try to make semi-pro teams. And I think the reality is universities don’t want to align themselves with employees, they want to align themselves with athletes who are also students."
Many administrators were unwilling to speculate too far into the future what those changes might be, mainly because the possibilities are endless. For all anyone knows, the NCAA’s model of amateurism might be upheld in court. For all anyone knows, football and men’s basketball could branch off into their own separate minor-league sports.
There are theories about how the NCAA might change, but this much is certain: The wind is blowing toward increasing spending on student-athletes — on their stipend checks, on their medical care, on their facilities and on the food they eat every day.
In recent years, the Utes, Cougars and Aggies have contributed millions to upgrade facilities for student-athletes, and all three schools have indicated they plan to offer some kind of stipend increase in the event that the NCAA passes new rules allowing cost-of-attendance adjustments. That trend was one of the reasons the NCAA recently voted to change its structure to give the five most powerful conferences autonomy.
Whether the courts force the NCAA to change or not, spending is increasing on players. Even non-Power 5 schools such as BYU are preparing to stretch their budgets.
"We’ve followed these issues over the past couple of years and know we’ll need to be prepared to do what it takes to remain competitive," Holmoe said. "It will be challenging for everyone in college athletics because new programs take budget dollars — but we are prepared to adjust as necessary."
At the same time, frustration with the NCAA continues: Critics say the schools and the NCAA itself are enjoying skyrocketing revenues while the students are seeing relatively little payback from that growth.
If people evaluated how much student-athletes got out of the deal, Barnes opined, there would likely be less controversy. Not earning a paycheck? That’s just part of being in college, he said.
"Sure, a select few of them could go professional right now and make money from their sports, but you could argue that we provide the platform that positions them to go make those dollars," he said. "Secondly, if a student-athlete doesn’t like the collegiate model, they have a decision to make: They can go be a professional. They are making a choice. End of the day, collegiate athletics isn’t a right, it’s a privilege."
In Wilken’s ruling, she argued that developmental or overseas professional opportunities aren’t truly part of the market, that colleges offer a "unique bundle of goods and services" to prospective athletes. The language of her ruling could affect the NCAA in other antitrust lawsuits challenging the organization as being a monopolistic cartel that controls how much athletes can make: scholarships, room and board. Nothing else.
For now, the athletic directors remain optimistic, but they also realize the need to stay nimble as the landscape shifts around them.
"There’s the reality it’s not going to be static," Hill said. "It’s going to continue to change and adjust. But some things won’t change: People will watch Utah play. They go because it’s their alma mater. And these athletes will continue to work hard and need to be supported. It’s been an ongoing process for years, and I think it will continue to be."
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