Is this the end of college sports as we know it? Will we feel fine?
Yes and (mostly) no, according to the panelists assembled for a Thursday afternoon webinar dubbed “The Disintegration of the NCAA: The Price of Rejecting National Governance.” The discussion, presented by the Drake Group, revolved around the NCAA’s recent decision to delegate rule-making authority to its three divisions, which some predict could lead to further segmentation in Division I sports.
“Instead of the NCAA being a traffic cop, the NCAA walked away from the intersection,” Name-Image-Likeness attorney and former University of Texas swimmer Julie Sommer said during Thursday’s discussion.
The trail that led to January’s decision by the NCAA started blazing with a June 2021 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that lifted the cap on the amount of benefits student-athletes could receive, essentially rendering moot the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. This has led to lucrative NIL deals for some student-athletes, as well as lawsuits seeking to have them reclassified as employees.
Sportsbooks at college stadiums?
The respected Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist raised the issue of NIL deals on Thursday, saying various athletic departments could see “decreasing revenue, as sponsorship payments are diverted from athletic departments to players.”
He added that this “new financial environment will create … stronger pressures for athletic departments to align more closely with revenue opportunities from sports betting,” such as “signing up with sportsbooks, the way pro teams are doing, and opening betting parlors in their facilities.”
“I’m scared to dickens at what’s going to happen,” Zimbalist continued. “It’s one thing when you introduce betting at the professional sports level. They’re well-compensated and pretty immune to taking bribes. College athletes are not very well-compensated, with a few exceptions. They’re targets, and the referees are targets, too. There’s a very slippery slope that this could all go down, and I’m not sure how it’s going to be regulated.”
Oliver Luck, the former NFL quarterback who’s since held posts such as XFL commissioner and West Virginia University athletic director (his son, Andrew, was also a pretty good QB), took exception with Zimbalist’s forecast, saying, “There have been bookies for the past 50, 60 years taking bets on college games all across the country. One of the arguments [for legalization] is to bring sports gambling out of the shadows, use AI and all the data to determine if there’s a game that’s being thrown. It’s happened in the past in college — rarely.
“Is there a way to keep student-athletes out of harm’s way? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that sports gambling has been happening for decades.”
‘Arms race’ could motivate top schools to ‘break off’
Underlying Zimbalist’s rationale is what he and others call the “arms race” in college sports — one that could very well intensify if higher-profile schools elect to splinter off from the rest of Division I.
“There will be a group of 20 to 30 schools at the top that break off,” Zimbalist predicted. “And as they break off, they will have to deal with different lawsuits that seek to declare athletes employees. And once they do that, the schools will have to pay Social Security, unemployment compensation. The athletes themselves will have to pay income taxes. There are going to be a lot of other changes.”
One of these changes, Luck proffered, is “the College Football Playoff, which is an LLC unrelated to the NCAA, may decide it’s going to run the regular season.”
Taking the perspective of “institutions that aren’t in an arms race,” Jasmine Ellis, an associate athletic director at the University of Akron who previously held a similar position at Central State University, called the NCAA “a warped system when it comes to redistribution of wealth and funding,” but feared that the organization’s diminished stature could have perilous effects for smaller D1 schools.
“Those are the institutions that come to mind when it comes to these huge shifts in governance,” she cautioned. “Things like ripple effects, conference realignment — it seems that these changes are happening by the minute. Even the footprint of a conference can impact things like missed class, student well-being. … For an NAIA school transitioning to Division I, what does that conversation look like? … We must create a true access point for these colleges.”
While some panelists feared that divisional fractures could lead to swimming and track-and-field becoming club sports, Luck, who generally took the most optimistic tack throughout the conversation, said, “At least theoretically, I think that NIL should keep a lot of potential Olympians on collegiate campuses.”
And while Luck acknowledged that there’s currently “an unprecedented level of disruption and uncertainty in NCAA athletics,” he added, “I think college athletics has incredibly strong roots and huge equity across the country. … Parents are tripping all over themselves to get college scholarships to play sport A, B, and C. That won’t change. People are competitive in this country.”
Photo: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY