3 big questions are lingering after NCAA’s landmark case

Small yet competitive athletic programs that cannot attract prospects with potential earnings subsidized from football revenue may crash out. 

College athletics may never be the same after the NCAA voted on a landmark settlement that will pay out former Division I athletes over the last 10 years and that allows schools to share their athletics revenue with their athletes.

It’s a move that protects the NCAA from losing a U.S. district court case in California, House v. NCAA, which would have required the governing body to pay up over $4 billion, an amount that could have potentially spelled its end. While the settlement awaits approval from the judge, many legal and athletics experts are preparing for an unfamiliar world.

“It’s both a historic and deeply flawed agreement,” Michael H. LeRoy, a law professor at the University of Illinois, told The New York Times. “The idea that schools are paying millions of dollars to the people who are selling the TV contracts and filling the seats—that’s good. But it closes one Pandora’s box and opens four or five others.”

Athletes: How much—and who—will get paid?

There are two fundamental aspects of the NCAA settlement. It has agreed to back-pay $2.8 billion to former athletes as far back as 2016. And all current and future university athletic programs in the Power 5 conferences—the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference—will distribute around $20 million per year directly to athletes. The latter’s calculations represent 22% of their average revenue earnings annually.

But the exact specifics on who will get paid and how much remain unclear. While money will be split evenly among all members, athletes’ payout may vary depending on their “market value”—which sports economists are devising across a number of in-game statistics, according to ESPN. The “granular data” gathering could be complicated, said Steve Berman, co-lead counsel on House v. NCAA.

Former athletes who played football and men’s basketball will be paid out the most, followed by women’s basketball, and then everyone else. However, calculating which current and future athletes will be paid as part of the $20 million revenue-sharing model is not as cut and dry.

“It’s going to be up to each school to decide how they’re going to distribute that $20 million,” Mit Winter, a legal attorney, told NPR. “And that’s going to probably vary a lot from school to school.”

One of the main flashpoints in the road ahead is how colleges and universities plan for their revenue-sharing model to comply with Title IX; specifically, will colleges decide to pay their men and women athletes the same wages? Is it discrimination to pay different rates?

Will this burden colleges outside the Power 5?

Colleges outside of the Power 5 are concerned with how the NCAA is divvying up its $2.8 billion, believing that the current framework will bleed them out financially and force them to cut athletic programs. The NCAA is willing to pay $1.2 billion, and of the $1.6 billion remaining, the governing body requests its Power 5 schools to pay back 40% and the remaining 27 pay back 60%.

Smaller colleges, which usually do not enjoy lucrative TV contracts linked to high program revenue, believe they are shouldering a significant burden. Often they lose money from their athletics programs, and most of the damages paid to former athletes will be those who played in the Power 5 conferences.

The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference will lose an average of $2.8 million in funding annually from the NCAA over 10 years, starting in the fall of 2025, the Times Union reports.

“I would say the most disheartening thing for me is that we now have to make difficult decisions as to what budget items will be cut that obviously will negatively impact the student-athlete experience over the next 10 years,” MAAC Commissioner Travis Tellitocci told Time Union.

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Similarly, this settlement can upend the power balance in men’s basketball, college athletics’s second-most watched sport. A number of small colleges across the country field competitive Division I basketball programs that routinely upset Power 5 flagships. Creighton University in Nebraska recently defeated the Oregon Ducks in the second round of March Madness, and Marquette reached the Final Four. Both universities are without revenue-reaping football programs.

Small yet competitive programs that cannot attract prospects with potential earnings subsidized from football revenue may crash out. “How do we maintain the parity and competitive balance among the 350-plus Division I basketball schools when not all of them play football and are getting, individually, millions and millions of dollars from these big TV contracts?” Matt Mitten, a professor of sports law at Marquette University, told NPR.

Lawsuits lingering on the horizon?

If the U.S. district judge approves the NCAA’s settlement, the governing body requests that athletes be denied the opportunity to open new cases on potential antitrust violations. As a result, three currently open cases (House v. NCAA, Hubbard v. NCAA and Carter v. NCAA) would be dropped. Likewise, the NCAA has spent the last several years lobbying Congress to pass a federal antitrust exemption.

But in the meantime, another antitrust case, Fontenot v. NCAA, is in the middle of litigation after a judge in Colorado denied a request to consolidate the case into the current settlement. While the probability of a former collegiate athlete opting out of the House case in California and pursuing an even bigger payout in the Colorado case is far-fetched, it opens the door to uncertainty.

“Maybe it stays small, but if anything this certainly weakens the idea that the House settlement represents an end to antitrust litigation against the NCAA over amateurism rules, and bolsters any dissent (to the extent it exists) on the athletes’ side against the settlement,” Boise State University sports law professor Sam Ehrlich told On3. “That can’t be extremely comfortable for the NCAA to hear on the day that I’m sure they were looking to start moving closer towards the settlement.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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