Something is rumbling beneath the college athletics world. Tectonic plates are rubbing against each other deep below the surface and at any moment, one will snap past the other and send out shockwaves that, when they subside, will change the landscape of college athletics as we know it.
It’s called Alston v. NCAA, and I’m betting that you’ve never heard of it. That’s okay; most people haven’t. But it’s important, and any day now there’s going to be a ruling that will most likely usher in a new wave of conference realignment.
Let’s start from the beginning. And I mean the very beginning.
In 2014, Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, argued that the NCAA’s use of players’ names, likeliness and images in video games and other products was a violation of antitrust laws, since it didn’t allow players to profit off their own image. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who is presiding over the Alston case, ruled in favor of O’Bannon. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari, thus sealing O’Bannon’s legal victory.
What did this do? Well, it changed NCAA rules in the way athletes can profit off their likeliness and scholarships. Previously, the NCAA did not allow colleges to offer athletes the “full cost of attendance.” This case changed that and now the full cost of attendance is part of grant-in-aid policy, which is at the center of the Alston case.
Essentially, Judge Wilken ruled that the NCAA’s amateurism rules unlawfully suppressed athletes and their ability to compete with each other outside of the literal sense.
This may not seem like it’s directly related until you realize that Judge Wilken is presiding over the Alston v. NCAA case. Given that she ruled in favor of student-athletes in O’Bannon vs. NCAA, it’s fair to assume she’ll rule in favor of Alston.
But what does that mean for college athletics? Two words: Super conferences.
If Alston wins the case, the NCAA will probably not be able to limit the amount of stipends a college could offer. The jurisdiction will fall into the hands of individual conferences to spend the money how they like.
Of course, this wouldn’t happen immediately. But when new TV deals are going to be negotiated around 2023, there’s a strong chance that this case will be a driving force in what schools group themselves in what conference. Schools like Clemson and Michigan will likely flock to a competitive football-oriented super division, while schools like Arkansas and Vaderbilt will find themselves elsewhere.
College athletics will essentially be split into two groups—football and everything that’s not football. The divide will only grow wider between now and 2023, and while football revenue was going to be the driving force behind realignment anyway, this case just makes the small trench between schools into a canyon. It’s no secret that schools pay players underneath the table (cough Louisville cough), but this case will make it very legal to do so. And schools will not hold back.
The NCAA’s chief legal argument against this is simple: Paying players outright will essentially turn college sports into minor league sports, and student-athletes will cease to be students. This, the NCAA says, will turn off a lot of fans from watching games since the perception that student-athletes choose schools out of loyalty will be largely shattered. Personally, I agree with this argument. It’s the best one they’ve got.
But it doesn’t help that Nick Saban makes $10 million and an athlete only gets a scholarship. I would rather the benefits be going to the players and not the coaches. It’s a tricky situation, but every hypocritical and absurd thing the NCAA does to enforce their rules really undercuts any argument they make, no matter how good of an argument it may be.
Conference realignment is no secret. And I can’t pretend to know what exactly is going to happen with this case. But more likely than not, an Alston victory will open the doors for players being paid, and the landscape of college athletics will never be the same.