Will autonomy, O’Bannon ruling change college football?

I’m not big on hyperbole so just  trust me on this:

Last week’s NCAA vote to give the Big Five Conferences more autonomy followed by a landmark ruling in the Ed O’Bannon case represent the two biggest changes in college athletics that we have seen in 30 years. Not since the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that the individual schools, not the NCAA, owned football television rights, have we had a moment this big that will literally change how college athletics goes about its business.

That 1984 decision begat mega-million dollar television packages for conferences (like the SEC) which begat conference championship games, which begat the BCS which ultimately begat the new College Football Playoff. Because of that decision the millions generated by college football has become billions and the popularity of the sport has boomed.

Last week’s decisions could be bigger. Let’s review.

  • The Big Five conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) plus Notre Dame were asking — actually demanding — that they be given more autonomy to decide a host of issues and rules related to their sports. For example: The Big Five  want to give scholarships that include a stipend to cover the incidental costs, also known as the full cost of attendance, of going to college. For more than four years, the big schools have wanted to do this and were being outvoted and held back by the smaller schools. No more. The Big Five basically threatened to form their own organization if the autonomy was not granted. Last week the NCAA Board of Directors voted 16-2 (Ivy League and Colonial voted against it)  to grant that autonomy.
  • U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken presided over the Ed O’Bannon case where the former UCLA basketball star and other former and current players sued, claiming that the NCAA’s rules, which cap the value of a scholarship and kept them from sharing in revenues generated by their names, images and likenesses (NIL) violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The judge ruled in favor of the players and shot down every argument the NCAA made that the current amateur model should stay in place. The NCAA plans to appeal.

So you ask, how does ‘any’ of this affect the games that I’m going to see on the field?

The short answer is:  “Not much.”

If you’re an SEC or ACC fan, you really won’t see any change at all. The autonomy ruling will surely bring about the cost of attendance stipend, but those schools can afford it because of additional money coming in from the College Football Playoff. The smaller budget schools in those conferences — like Vanderbilt and Wake Forest — will find it a little tougher.

The O’Bannon ruling, which doesn’t go into effect until July 1, 2016, will allow schools to set aside a minimum of $5,000 per year per athlete which represents a share of licensing revenues. The athlete doesn’t get the money until he leaves school. It’s a significant amount of money, but it is still doable for the big schools.

But if you’re a fan of the Sun Belt Conference — which includes Georgia State and Georgia Southern — you’ve got some big decisions to make. You’re already in a hole financially getting this program up and running in Georgia State’s case and moving to Division I in Georgia Southern’s. You’ll probably decide you can’t afford to play with the big boys, which was already true before last week.

So for fans there is almost no change. For the administrators of college athletics,  life just got a lot more complicated. But if you’re the parent of a scholarship athlete, your life is about to get a little better.

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