College athletics, beyond just the NCAA, has been backed into a corner surrounded by barbed wire. There are few paths out. At this point, seemingly no amount of litigation or committees or legislation can deny what is inevitably coming down the tracks like a runaway train.
In some way, shape or form, athletes in the revenue-producing sports will have to be paid. Not just name, image and likeness rights or cost of attendance money, we're talking some sort of partnership with the schools for which they put their bodies on the line.
Short of Congressional intervention — a Hail Mary at this point — that's the only tenet remaining from a collegiate model that has melted away over the years like a Life Saver left out in the rain.
For many, there is little left of the innocence that drew a certain generation to the games in the first place. What has been positioned as a decisive moment this week at the NCAA Convention really serves only as background music.
What matters more are the parallel tracks carrying NIL, the transfer portal, player empowerment, a multibillion-dollar entertainment/athletic complex and a yawning lack of leadership at the top.
No rewriting of the NCAA Constitution is going to change that narrative in the short term. College athletics has not only lost a large part of whatever legal leverage it might hold to stave off pay-for-play, it has lost its way entirely.
"I do think we're probably 2-3 years away from having a different relationship with our student-athletes," said respected North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham, who is entering his 27th year in athletic administration. "It won't necessarily be the student and the university. It may be employee-employer."
That means a fundamental shift in how the games are administered and consumed.
If players are paid by their schools, will that turn off fans? It hasn't so far.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young's NIL valuation is currently third nationally at $1.8 million per year. While he's not paid directly by the school, he's still capable of becoming a multimillionaire while in college. Young won the Heisman Trophy in 2021 and is generally viewed as a football and personal success story. In other words, his earnings haven't made a difference in his on-field success. He's a winner.
"If he made $2 million, everybody in that locker room would be incredibly happy knowing he deserves everything," Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said of his star quarterback, Desmond Ridder. "Teammates would not bat an eyelash. … They respect guys who put in the work."
College athletics is coming around to the concept because, increasingly, there is nowhere left to go. The NCAA could have begun loosening its view of compensation the moment Charles O'Bannon protested about having his image on a video game without pay. In September 2019, NCAA president Mark Emmert was still calling NIL "an existential threat".