‘Seismic’ changes are coming to college athletics, not entirely for the better

Georgia defensive lineman Christen Miller (52) tackles Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith (4) during their game at at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia defensive lineman Christen Miller (52) tackles Georgia Tech running back Dontae Smith (4) during their game at at Bobby Dodd Stadium, Saturday, November 25, 2023, in Atlanta. Georgia won 31-23. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Possibly as early as next week, college athletics could change forever.

The catalysts are three lawsuits against the NCAA and power conferences that are expected to be settled, with the NCAA owing $2.8 billion in damages, according to reporting by Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger. The NCAA and conference leaders likely will agree to terms, as the potential losses if the cases go to trial could be a staggering $20 billion.

Part of the settlement also stipulates that athletes at power-conference schools can be paid directly by the schools themselves. It’s the biggest step taken in the steady advances that have been made in allowing athletes to receive more of college athletics’ enormous revenue pie, following the expansion of scholarships and legislation allowing athletes to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness, among other changes.

Power-conference schools will be able to annually earmark about $21 million to directly compensate athletes, likely starting in the fall of 2025. Traditionally presented as a level of competition distinguished by amateur athletes playing for love of school, college athletics will be beyond question a professional entity.

“This is a seismic shift in college athletics,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips told media at the conference’s spring meetings this week in Amelia Island, Florida. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s going to happen. It’s happening now.”

In many ways, it is progress. Particularly since football and basketball coaches began drawing multimillion-dollar salaries and conferences started raking in literal billions for their TV rights, the call for athletes – the ones playing in the games that draw the eyeballs and sell the tickets and jerseys – to receive their share has become increasingly difficult to ignore, not to mention refute.

There is some poetic justice in that EA Sports’ “College Football 25″ video game will be released in July, several weeks after the expected settlement. It renews the highly popular series that the company stopped producing in 2013 after lawsuits were filed against the NCAA for selling the rights to football and men’s basketball players’ images and likenesses for video games without financially compensating them. It was one of the first significant events in the movement for college athletes to receive more of the wealth flowing through the industry.

For the soon-to-be-released game, FBS players were offered $600 and a copy of the game (a few star players received much bigger deals) for the use of their name, image and likeness in the game, and more than 11,000 from all 134 FBS teams signed up. It just makes sense.

There’s another side to this upheaval, though. By the terms of the settlement, as reported by Dellenger, the power-conference schools (including Georgia and Georgia Tech) will be able to offer their athletes up to $21 million annually on top of their scholarships.

Some athletic departments, such as Georgia, are better positioned to absorb that additional cost. In fiscal year 2023, the UGA athletic association declared $210 million in revenues and $187 million in expenses, clearing $23 million.

Others face a crisis. In the same 2023 fiscal year, the Tech athletic association generated $134 million in revenues while spending $132 million, which for Tech represented an unusually successful year in the ledger.

But the obstacles don’t end there. As part of the settlement, according to Yahoo Sports, the NCAA will offer $1 million to $2 million less per school in annual distributions for the next 10 years as part of damages owed to athletes for usage of their name, image and likeness before the NCAA made NIL payments legal in 2021.

Further, another part of the settlement will remove the NCAA’s scholarship limits for each sport. For instance, Division I baseball teams are allowed 11.7 scholarships, which can be broken up and spread across the roster. By terms of the settlement, roster limits will be set for each sport, and schools will be able to offer as many scholarships as they’d like.

That means if the baseball roster max is set at 30, teams can offer 30 full scholarships. That’s nearly a threefold increase in scholarship cost.

Schools won’t be required to add scholarships and also don’t have to use all of the $21 million marked for payments. But the implication is pretty obvious. Schools that have the resources to offer more scholarships will be more competitive than the ones that can’t.

And, for good measure, remember that TV rights payouts for the SEC and Big Ten continue to climb, while the ACC and Big 12 lag. The gap figures to grow only wider.

Particularly for schools with less, something will have to give to meet the new payroll demands, which presumably will go mostly to football and men’s basketball athletes.

That could mean non-revenue sports programs being cut, athletic department staffs being reduced or services to athletes, such as training or academic support, being reduced, or a combination.

Regarding the likelihood of sports programs being cut, “I think you’re going to see some of that happen, for sure,” an FBS-level athletic director told the AJC.

In short, in the pursuit of giving a relatively small number of athletes their share of the pie (which they’ve earned), the whole structure could be turned over. It’s already happening to some degree with NIL payments, but in short order “negotiating contracts with high-school prospects” and “managing salary cap” will presumably be part of the job description of college coaches and administrators.

And, the settlement does not address the access that athletes will have to the transfer portal, although it conceivably could be part of the contracts made between schools and athletes.

It’s true that this will only certify what has been happening all along. There always have been athletes with their eyes on the pros, boosters making under-the-table payments and coaches who claimed that their teams were families in one breath and bolted for a new team and a bigger contract the next.

But for those who believed in and supported the traditional identity of college athletics – young people competing as amateurs and valuing athletic scholarships to colleges that they might not have been able to afford or be admitted to otherwise – something is about to be irrevocably lost.

“I just think it’s so unfortunate,” former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity told the AJC. “And I know it’s a sign of the times, and you have to deal with it now. But from someone that really embraced intercollegiate athletes as an amateur environment, those days are gone.”