The so-called "Power 5" college athletics conferences — the ACC, the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Bay Area-based Pac-12, and the SEC — defected from their mothership yesterday, after the National Collegiate Athletic Association voted to grant them autonomy. Deemed a radical reform of the organization's traditional top-down governance structure
, the move might funnel more revenue into the athletes' pockets.
That's been a major point of contention for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is currently battling multiple lawsuits and congressional scrutiny over its treatment of student-athletes, particularly those involved in brain-rattling
, injury-inducing, high-revenue sports like football and basketball.
One class action case that's currently ongoing in federal court in Oakland pits a group of current and former college athletes against the association and its licensing arm. The plaintiffs, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon
, demand that the NCAA enter contracts with players upon graduation
, entitling them to part of the billions in licensing fees and revenues that enrich the association, its athletic programs, and a small coterie of well-paid coaches every year.
For years the NCAA has made athletes sign forms that relinquish all rights to their own images, even after they graduate. Now the 65 Power 5 schools might be able to jettison that practice. Athletes who've long seen themselves depicted in video games, on school jerseys, and in classic game rebroadcasts, might finally get compensated.
Critics from smaller schools say this will only give the big guys a better edge in recruiting, which will in turn deepen the divide between those with resources, and those without. That in turn might dampen the healthy competition that currently exists between college teams.
But others say it's a first step toward acknowledging the contributions of student-athletes.
"It's not fair — not at all," writes Slate's executive editor Josh Levin
, arguing that this supposed "reform" really just cements the status quo: Big schools will get to flex their recruiting muscle, smaller ones will have to play by a stricter set of rules.
That said, it is a step in the right direction. "By enshrining one kind of inequality," Levin writes, "the NCAA has taken a step toward addressing the unfairness that really matters."
Drexel University Professor Ellen Staurowsky, who testified as an expert witness at the O'Bannon trial, is still reserving judgment.
"Over the span of its existence, the culture within the NCAA has been resistant to change, adjusting course slowly and only enough to alleviate pressure from the courts, threats from Congress, or public dissatisfaction," she writes. "The outstanding question is what the Power 5 does with autonomy. Will they address in a meaningful way practices that have been challenged on numerous fronts as illegal and/or immoral? "
The opportunity may be there, Staurowsky continues. But that doesn't mean schools will take it.
At any rate, opponents now have a 60-day period to veto the decision.