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Keith Strudler: The Supreme Court And College Sports

While the US Supreme Court may have decided not to hear a recent, extremely high-profile case, it subsequently just decided it would hear another. And even though this case won’t determine the fate of American democracy, it will have lasting impact on a pretty significant American institution.

In 2021, the Court will review a case that places college athletes vs. the NCAA to essentially determine the trajectory of amateurism in college sports. They will review the decision affirmed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that basically says that the NCAA can’t cap education related compensation and benefits, a strong contrast to the current landscape where teams can be put on probation for serving the wrong breakfast spread at snack time – and I’m only slightly exaggerating. Now this ruling as it stands leaves a fair amount of ambiguity, and it also puts quite a bit of discretion to the individual conferences to make their own rules. But at the very least, it opens the door to compensate players beyond the standard full cost of attendance.

The Supreme Court rarely ventures into college athletics and has been known to kick the can down the road. Most recognize the Court’s most significant hearing to be when the basically blew up college sports television in 1984. Which, to be clear, forever altered the landscape of big-time college football and led to the mega conference TV deals and university branded sports networks we see today.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case comes just as the Knight Commission released a report that recommended that major, Division I college football – a big part of this court case for sure – should basically split from the NCAA and legislate themselves. It’s a recognition that teams like Alabama and Texas and Ohio State do something that’s very different than what the rest of the NCAA is doing. So instead of continuing the charade of round peg/square hole, just let the Power 5 conferences run their own thing, make their own rules, and leave amateur athletics to teams like Emory soccer or Cortland field hockey – and no offense to either. Assuming the Supreme Court affirms the prior ruling on compensating athletes, and there’s a lot of reasons to think they will, it looks like changes may be coming to the upper crust of college sports.

Obviously, there will be a long, long list of unintended consequences, a bunch of which we can see coming from a mile away. Like it or not, the divide between the haves and have nots will inevitably lead to schools cutting non-revenue sports like track and swimming and also probably shutting down football programs that can’t compete in this new economic model. It’s kind of like when they raise the ante a poker table – at some point, all but the heavy hitters have to fold. So regardless of your perspective on the issue – whether you see college sports as exploitation of unpaid athletes or free college education – know that change will not come in a vacuum. Which is largely what concerns many who work at colleges and universities across the country. Not that they stand so firmly on dogma, but rather that they know it may be hard to keep the train moving when the entire system of transportation is about to change.

Generally speaking, I tend to believe that if something is truly important, people in positions of authority figure out a way to make it happen. Of course, the current dysfunction in federal government seems to defy that principle. But I do believe that university presidents at Oregon and Clemson and LSU and the like will build a model that keeps big time college sports looking a lot like what we see today, even if it now includes a tool for paying players and spreading the wealth. I also think it will reveal the schools that can’t, schools below the top tier that will simply play in lower division or not at all. The good thing about capitalism is that it does tend to reveal actual market value, something we don’t see in today’s college sports landscape, where athletes at Ball State and Texas A&M are on pretty much the same plan. If this case goes as it might, that will be no longer. Which, to be fair, is probably something that should have happened a long time ago.

So how will it all pan out? How long until college sports has a new normal? It’s hard to say, with all the uncertainty in higher education right now. But in this case, the Supreme Court would like have a word.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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