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Where Does the NCAA Go From Here?

The NCAA needs to take control of reform in order to stop it

Step One: Fire this man
Step One: Fire this man
Jamie Squire

The NCAA lost, and athletes can get paid.

The Mothership's analysis calls this a narrow win for the plaintiffs, but I respectfully disagree. On Friday morning, it was against NCAA rules for players to receive any compensation from the university, and now the NCAA is enjoined from enforcing those rules.

The camel's nose is under the tent, y'all.

That said, the NCAA shouldn't waste its time on an appeal it is virtually certain to lose. The NCAA needs to call this reform, get behind it, and call it a day. If the NCAA digs in its heels and tries to stop any change whatsoever, it is going to get bulldozed into some unknowable system. Instead, this is the perfect time for the NCAA to simply co-opt the reform movement. Trumpet this as a huge win for the players, the fans, God, apple pie, and anyone else you can think of. Pass some more marginal reforms to score a much needed PR win*, and get the hell out of this bottomless pit.

*Or, pass meaningful reform and allow players to market themselves and appear in advertising and hold outside jobs. Then, the NCAA role shifts from trying to stop players from receiving outside payment and moves into an agency that requires the reporting of these payments. The IRS would surely appreciate it.

The NCAA doesn't want to hear it and neither do old school fans who sympathize with the NCAA, but here it comes anyway: this is as good as it gets. We won't be able to stuff the genie back into the bottle and from this point forward, the issue is what reform will look like, not whether reform will happen. There are more lawsuits on the horizon, and then there's all of the future actions that haven't even been filed yet. This is just the first shot. And let me tell you, this gun has a lot of bullets.

We are never going back to the "good old days", nor would we really want to. Of course, in the good old days, some schools did offer cost of attendance scholarships, so it's not like these are uncharted waters. Schools are still going to compete over talent, and sadly, the same schools are still going to win, regardless of what the rules are.

This injunction isn't all that bad for the NCAA, as it just codifies policies that they were likely to implement anyway. What's the point of appealing it? If the NCAA wins on appeal, which is unlikely, than the Power 5 is likely going to implement these changes anyway. However, the appeal runs the risk of making things even worse for the NCAA, as the plaintiffs will likely appeal as well, to expand this ruling. Why open yourself up to that risk to prevent a reform that you are likely to implement on your own anyway?

Judge Wilken threw the NCAA a life raft with this decision. She absolutely destroys the NCAA's logic in the decision, and she makes it nigh on impossible for the NCAA to ever use amateurism as a fig leaf in a court of law ever again. While the injunction isn't that bad, the logic behind the injunction is terrible for the NCAA. The NCAA is going to butt up against this legal precedent in every future legal challenge, and there will be a virtual smorgasbord of citations for future plaintiffs.

Wilken decided an antitrust case against the NCAA using the rule of reason. There's a bit of a joke in antitrust law that the rule of reason is defined as "defendant wins". While that's not strictly true, obviously, it is really difficult for a plaintiff to overcome the rule of reason. O'Bannon beat the NCAA on difficult legal ground that the NCAA will never enjoy again. Each subsequent case gets a little more difficult for the NCAA as the weight of precedent piles up. The NCAA had the proverbial high ground and lost. That doesn't bode well for future skirmishes.

The logic is awful for the NCAA, but the actual remedy? Cost of attendance scholarships and a trust fund for players capped at $5,000 per year. That's nothing. Revenues have exploded in the last decade, and this would cost a school only a fraction of the recent increases. This is a gift. Take it and run with it.

Wilken was correct to cite the opinion polls of college football fans. While there is support for college players to get a piece of the pie, that support likely evaporates when we are talking about huge sums of money. College reform advocates have the moral force in their argument when they talk about kids unable to afford a pizza. That force is non-existent when we're talking about the inability to cash a six figure check.

The polling data shows that fans largely do not care whether players receive up to $20,000, but they oppose players receiving $100,000. So she crafted a plan in which players receive that $20,000, but they have to wait for it. This is a reform plan that likely will have the least amount of public push back. That support likely evaporates if they start trying to pay players in the six figures.

The NCAA can effectively buy off a huge segment of the college reform movement's support by giving in to these reforms, and then championing them as right and just. The number of people who actually want to see college athletes making six-figure sums is probably pretty small. The standard Dale Brown line has always centered on kids going to bed hungry. Cost of attendance scholarships make sure that won't happen. After that, reformers best PR line is taken from them.

What becomes the PR line then? Players need to be treated like pro athletes? College kids need millions of dollars, too? It sucks the air out of the room. And the casual fan likely moves on, content with the reform.

Not just accepting this ruling, but building some further reforms based upon this foundation would allow the NCAA to create a new model that isn't significantly different than the old one. Athletes having some money waiting for them in a trust fund wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either. Heck, go all out and raise the cap to $10,000 as a sign of good faith. Show how the NCAA is bending over backwards to help out the modern student athlete.

Reforms are gaining traction because they are generically popular. Reformers can dip into an unused bank of goodwill that the NCAA cannot. So the NCAA needs to simply take over that bank. Fire Mark Emmert, create a new Power 5 subdivision, enact the policies required by the injunction, and prevent any further changes. Own the reform right now, while there is still a chance for the NCAA to survive. Otherwise, we can see radical reforms that would result in an unknowable model which may look more like the pro leagues than the college model. Adopting these reforms now preserves some semblance of the past.

Judge Wilken gave the NCAA a lifeboat, they just need to get in and start rowing.