The compensation formula for collegiate athletes is deeply flawed, and the entire system could drastically change in the not-too-distant future based on one court ruling. The business model, which has banked on amateurism staying constant, could very well be turned on its side.
Most importantly, no one’s really quite really sure what to do next. There’s an urgency building as we approach the unknown, but the rest is a mystery, even to those most closely involved.
By already preparing for the possibility of defeat—whether he’s posturing, which is very likely, or simply blowing off steam—USC athletic director Pat Haden is beginning to speculate “what if.”
If you’re sitting in his shoes, it’s easy to see why.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, Haden discussed the Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, which is expected to actually reach the court this summer. The O’Bannon suit began with EA Sports and compensation for athletic likeness in video games produced by the company.
The plaintiffs have adjusted this tremendously since the start, and last year added in that collegiate athletes should be entitled to 50 percent of the revenue brought in by the NCAA along with those lucrative television deals.
Now, the NCAA must go to bat with co-defendant EA Sports—unless some last minute legal maneuvering gets in the way first—and the stakes are exceedingly high. The death of amateurism could become a reality depending on what happens in court.
Haden, who was a practicing attorney in his former life, is bracing for impact despite not—at least publicly—having a lot of in-depth information on the case.
"We ought to be kept abreast of it at all times, and we ought to prepare for it in case we lose. I haven't followed the case closely, but what I read from legal scholars, it's not a slam dunk for the NCAA."
Regarding the potential impact on the bottom line, which is what everyone involved is most concerned about after all, Haden had the following to say.
"The context of the lawsuit has changed. What do we do if we lost?" Haden said of the NCAA's side. "All of a sudden your television revenue -- let's say it's $20 million a year [for a school]. Now if they win, it's $10 million a year. How do you make your 21 sports work on half the revenue?"
Haden isn’t the first one to express concern over how they could possibly make up for the dollars lost. Big Ten commissioner, Jim Delany, painted a calculated and dramatic picture when speaking with Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated.
Delany tossed the “Division III model” as a possible solution, where they could “de-emphasize” athletics. Included in this premature rant was the possibility of cutting scholarships while also radically changing the Big Ten conference you know altogether.
There’s a simple truth to Delany’s stance: he’d rather turn down money than share it with the players. Forget about strategizing new income sources or finding some sort of comfortable balance if the suit indeed goes through. Delany instead would hit the self-destruct button, blowing the cash cow to smithereens before acquiring new mouths to feed.
This, of course, is just a stance at a time where you can provide this nuclear scenario without having to hover over the “fire” button.
There’s much to be determined before this ever reaches court (if it ever reaches court), and a settlement is still a possibility. And if it does eventually see the courtroom, this could be a decision years down the road.
Given the dollars involved, complexity of the case, possibility of multiple appeals and other assorted factors, we likely won’t know the future of amateurism for some time. Just look how long this suit has been looming, how much it has changed over time.
Both Haden and Delany are well aware of this, which is what makes their public stances that much more interesting. These are two of the smartest minds in college athletics, so everything they choose to say beyond a boardroom is out because they want it out.
Although Haden’s stance was nowhere near the dramatic length of Delany’s, he clearly alluded to the fact that other athletic programs outside of football and basketball would suffer and perhaps cease to exist. They’re crafting this message right now, well before this could ever become a realistic possibility.
NCAA guru and Athnet contributor John Infante poised the following fascinating question on Twitter. Just what do you do?
At this point, wait and see.
They’re choosing not to fight the actual issue at hand by expressing their thoughts, but instead preemptively turning to the possible ramifications. It speaks volumes about the strength of O’Bannon’s case, but it also encompasses the overwhelming problem and haziness surrounding amateurism.
We're skipping past "why not" and instead turning to "what if?"
The topic of compensating athletes for the work they do—and more specifically the money they bring in—is not where Haden is choosing to turn his attention. Instead, he’s looking at how this could make his job much more difficult.
Forget about whether or not athletes should get a cut; those tasked with managing (and hopefully improving) the bottom line are instead worried about their school and, well, the bottom line.
At this point, the question isn’t whether or not collegiate athletes should get paid, but how much? Haden can sense this momentum building, which is why this has become a topic of conversation. He’s planted the seed well ahead of time.
If Haden is looking for public support in any form, however, he won’t find it here. Although the classic business model which has made many schools and administrators rich after all these years—and yes, it’s helped fund programs along the way—is still in place, it may not be for very long.
There’s a long way to go before a contingency plan must be seriously reviewed and/or implemented, but it’s clear that the higher-ups in college football have already batted around a few ideas.
Given the money up for grabs, changes that would be implemented and the June court date nearing, we’re likely just getting started.