The Spoils

As age-old tensions become untenable, once-unimaginable changes upend college sports and promise more tumult to come. Who’s your money on?

Author: Malcolm Moran

The fact is, that mere playing for compensation is not, in itself, wrong, but the admission to the university of students who are financed because of their athletic prowess and because of their ability to round out winning athletic teams, cannot do otherwise than result in disaster to our educational program and to its standards of scholarship.”

These words were written 95 years ago. Could we pause for just a moment to think about that? In 1929, a report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching described in detail how sporting spectacles across the nation, especially on those football Saturdays in the fall, had become a threat to the credibility and integrity of American higher education.

Decades before games came to be viewed as inventory and athletes as content providers for the benefit of shoe and apparel companies and other corporations — but not themselves — college students in the United States were asked to do something, sometimes on a national scale, that was not asked of gifted young athletes just about anywhere else in the world. They were asked to elevate the profile of entire educational institutions merely through the effectiveness of their play.

Their visibility early in the 20th century inspired the construction of enormous stadiums, built to accommodate crowds well beyond the size of their campus communities. Word of their achievements could be spread to mass audiences through next-day newspaper accounts, then the immediacy of radio, then television, then network television, then cable television, as broadcast rights fees escalated from thousands of dollars to millions to billions.

But in all that time, as the struggle continued between university leaders and athletic departments and their boosters for control of the enterprise, the entertainment division of higher education has never faced stakes quite like the ones it confronts today. As the athletic interests generate unprecedented revenue that promises to increase, with reports indicating that an agreement in principle between the College Football Playoff and ESPN will generate approximately $1.3 billion per year for the conferences, those stakes are captured in a question that is nearly a century old:

What does this mean for the credibility of the institutions providing the occasions, the stages and the actors?

An illustration of a woman in a cap and gown and a man in a football uniform standing on a football split in two with cash spilling out.
Illustrations by James Yang

When U.S. District Judge Clifton L. Corker issued a temporary order on February 23, 2024, blocking the NCAA from prohibiting athletes from signing deals based on uses of their name, image and likeness (NIL) before officially committing to a university, the system of amateur collegiate athletics as it existed for more than a century may have moved one more step closer to an era of unionized athletic employees.

“The NCAA’s prohibition likely violates federal antitrust law and harms student-athletes,” Corker wrote, creating another challenge for the NCAA in its effort to preserve universities’ status as educators — but not as employers — of the players who wear the uniforms of member schools.

So, the kind of financial arrangements that once led to NCAA sanctions and national disgrace are now . . . legal? A prized recruit in 1979, legendary running back Eric Dickerson acknowledged in 2022 that money and cars — then the stuff of scandal — were part of his enticements. He received a gold Trans Am, technically purchased by his grandmother, but she was reimbursed by Texas A&M boosters, Dickerson revealed in his memoir, Watch My Smoke.

He played at Southern Methodist University, where he says a booster provided a Corvette. The suspension of the SMU football program in 1987 for NCAA violations — the so-called death penalty — became a lasting symbol of damaging consequences.

In a very different era, Dickerson appeared in a 2022 promotional video for SMU football . . . driving a gold Trans Am.

Once-unimaginable media-rights fees that broadcasters pay to conferences and schools have continued to escalate, with the likelihood of more intense bidding to come, even as many athletic departments confront staggering debt through their commitments to higher and higher coaching salaries, costly facilities and other expenditures in an attempt to gain an advantage over the competition.

The abrupt end of institutional relationships, such as the dissolution of the Pacific-12 Conference, has altered or ended rivalries that had endured for more than a century. A case could be made that the financial stability that could result from conference reconfigurations and the revenue they promise will better sustain programs beneath the power elite. Team travel and its costs — both in dollars and in student-athlete welfare — will be an issue, as expanded conferences span the continent, but competitions could be clustered so that increased travel for Olympic sports does not overburden athletes physically or academically.

After calls for a major-college football tournament began at least as far back as the 1950s, the postseason format for a national championship, which consisted of two teams in the final iteration of the Bowl Championship Series in January 2014, will include 12 teams next December, just 11 seasons later. At the time of this writing, a potential expansion to 14 teams has already been discussed.

Teenagers, the beneficiaries of the type of free-agency structure that athletes and their advocates had unsuccessfully sought for years, may now legally challenge coaches to name the price tag for their services.

All of which raises existential questions:

Has this business of games become a mirror to a world they once helped us escape from?

Is an industry built on preserving a college experience as alumni have known it for decades in danger of becoming so radically different that it could lose its nostalgic appeal?

Can the NCAA, led by President Charlie Baker, overcome the costly inactivity of his predecessor’s regime as the legal warning signs became increasingly clear? Can he and the association navigate the legal and economic challenges to preserve collegiate athletics as we’ve known it, continuing to educate students, provide life-altering opportunities, produce the nation’s future leaders — and compensate athletes in a way that is legal, equitable and fiscally responsible?

An illustration of two college students walking and wearing backpacks, but one is wearing a football helmet and cash rains down on him.

I have attempted to understand this industry for more than 40 years, 19 as a reporter at The New York Times and nearly six at USA Today. I have sat at the NCAA convention in the simpler era of the paddle vote, all out in the open, when you could feel the passion of an influential speaker suddenly change a debate, the feeling in the room and the fortunes of proposed legislation, for better or worse.

I have sat in press boxes at games that made me wonder if we were all crossing some threshold without quite knowing where we were headed. There was the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, Miami and Penn State in a prime-time, made-for-television No. 1 vs. No. 2 grudge match on Friday, January 2 — set apart from all the suddenly lesser bowls — that created an embryonic postseason playoff template. There was the inaugural Southeastern Conference championship game at Legion Field in Birmingham in 1992, Alabama and Florida, combining elite-level competition, network exposure and a brand-new source of revenue. There was the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, the first title game in the Bowl Championship Series, played on January 4. As a group of reporters waited in a hotel lobby for the ride to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, workers arrived nearby with large cardboard boxes to pack up the holiday decorations. The holidays gone, college football kept going, and there was something unnatural about that threshold. There was the 2015 Rose Bowl, Florida State and Oregon, the first semifinal game of the inaugural College Football Playoff, played in the oldest and most glorious postseason venue — Pasadena, California, on New Year’s Day — moving us toward the type of championship tournament previously reserved for the NFL.

I remember a time when the football game everyone wanted to watch was not necessarily televised because of the limitations imposed by NCAA control over the broadcast schedule. That ended with the 1984 Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, which determined that the contracts between networks and the NCAA were an illegal restraint of trade, forever changing the structure and its balance of power.

I have walked through shopping malls with college athletes I was interviewing and heard the frustration in their voices when they spotted their jersey number on display in a store window. As a season approached in one town where the coach had withheld the identity of the starting quarterback, I have seen competing stores make their picks — a No. 7 in one window, a No. 17 not too far down the street — in a futures market of football jerseys.

During a period of cost containment in the 1990s, when the per diem funds for athletes over winter break had been reduced, even as apparel companies were creating new and more expensive uniform designs based on their popularity, I calculated how many days it would take for an athlete to go without eating if he wanted to use his decreased per diem to buy a jersey with his number. The answer was more than four.

I have listened to the debates about postseason football and watched the pendulum go back and forth. The day after the 1980 Rose Bowl, Southern California’s cathartic last-minute victory over No. 1 Ohio State — on Charles White’s dive into the end zone to complete a 247-yard day — I spoke to John Robinson, the coach of the Trojans. If anyone in America had a right to feel unfulfilled at the end of that 1979 season, it was the No. 3 Trojans, who were committed to play in the Rose Bowl as the Pacific-10 champion while No. 2 Alabama of the SEC beat No. 6 Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl: The USC victory had opened a door for the Crimson Tide to be voted No. 1 in the final polls that then defined a national champion.

There was, of course, a way that the conference bowl commitments could have been overcome — a playoff. But when Robinson was asked about the possibility, this is what he said:

“There’s a part of me that would want it, for reasons that would benefit everything but the athlete. You hear there’s too much pressure already because of the almighty dollar, and yet the reason some want a playoff system is to generate income.

“You would have to vote for the teams,” Robinson went on. “That’s just as phony as voting for a national champion. I just think it’s too much for a college student. Say they picked Oklahoma, Houston, USC and Alabama. My God, we’d be playing in the third week of January. We’ve got finals in two weeks.”

On the same page where Robinson’s quote appeared, sports writer Dave Anderson advocated for a playoff in the “Sports of The Times” column in The New York Times:

“Two polls and one computer agreed yesterday that the University of Alabama deserved to be ranked as the nation’s No.1 college football team, but an opinion is never as definitive as a score,” Anderson wrote. “If the National Collegiate Athletic Association had a football tournament, the winning teams in Tuesday’s four major bowl games now would have qualified for the semifinals. . . . When football programs become too expensive, the tournament will be sanctioned.”

More than a decade later, in 1991, with costs spiraling and increased media attention being paid to issues such as the academic qualifications of incoming athletes and unsatisfactory graduation rates at too many institutions, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued its first report, Keeping Faith with the Student-Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics, a strongly worded description of a system that had gone out of control. The report’s challenge to establish control at the presidential level — direct oversight rather than just reacting to crises and leaving day-to-day governance to athletic departments — was viewed by many as a transformational development. “At their worst, big-time athletics appear to have lost their bearings,” the report stated.

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, the former Notre Dame president who led the commission along with former University of North Carolina system president William C. Friday, was even more direct in a news conference to introduce the project.

“We would love to put the sleaziness of intercollegiate sports to rest with this report,” Hesburgh said.

The Knight Commission, in its fifth decade of existence, has remained committed to its mission to address the issues and advocate for a more educationally based, financially responsible industry. During that time, though, media rights contracts have continued to escalate with more commas and zeros, coaching salaries have skyrocketed, practice facilities have become increasingly expensive. Add to that the legal setbacks in high-profile cases, and the evidence has been mounting that the model has become unsustainable.

In the meantime, the amount of money all around the athletics enterprise — and the public perception of its impact — was changing so quickly that once-unimaginable developments were starting to become real. Ed O’Bannon, the leader of the 1994-95 UCLA men’s national basketball champions, became the most visible figure in a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA that challenged the inability of athletes to share in revenues from their images in broadcasts and video games. In 2014, when U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ruled the NCAA could not prevent athletes from selling the rights to their names, images and likenesses, the shift changed the vernacular — and the business — of college athletics forever.

During the period leading to Wilken’s ruling, I reconnected with a friend and legal expert who had once helped guide me through the complexities of my NCAA Convention coverage. He explained the potential implications of the O’Bannon case. We talked, too, about the unionization effort then being made by athletes at Northwestern University. He did not downplay the importance of those issues.

But what he told me was this:

That’s the pregame show.

Alston is the ballgame.


That same year, Shawne Alston, a former West Virginia University running back, had filed suit to challenge the NCAA’s restrictions on academic-related compensation for college athletes — the limits on stipends for books, computers and other academic costs not covered by a scholarship. Those caps had been put in place to prevent athletes from receiving de facto “pay-for-play” deals that exceeded educational needs, but Alston’s lawyers argued that the restraints violated antitrust law.

Seven years later, the Supreme Court agreed. A 9-0 decision in NCAA v. Alston ruled the NCAA could not enforce limits on education-related funds paid to Division I athletes.

Though the Alston ruling did not directly endorse compensation for players, it prompted widespread speculation that salaries were not too far behind: The justices had suggested that an antitrust exemption could not insulate colleges from paying athletes for their labor.

“To the extent the NCAA means to propose a sort of judicially ordained immunity from the terms of the Sherman [Antitrust] Act for its restraints of trade — that we should overlook its restrictions because they happen to fall at the intersection of higher education, sports and money — we cannot agree,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote.

And that’s how, in bookend landmark decisions nearly four decades apart, from Oklahoma to Alston, the amateur model that had been a defining characteristic of college sports was all but dismantled.

Those seismic changes make the NCAA’s top job unappealing in this unprecedented era. Baker, the former Massachusetts governor who took over as NCAA president in March 2023, has described how he resisted the opportunity to pursue the job when his name was first mentioned as a potential candidate.

One evening last fall, as he stood with his wife, Lauren, at a welcome reception in downtown Indianapolis, Baker said the more he considered the possibility, he thought of his own basketball career at Harvard and the time Lauren had spent as a gymnast at Northwestern — and the powerful influence those experiences had on their lives. Soon, an idea that had made little sense began to appear more like a calling.

In December, Baker sent a letter to NCAA member schools outlining a “forward-looking framework” to address the new legal reality. “First,” Baker said, “we should make it possible for all Division I colleges and universities to offer student-athletes any level of enhanced educational benefits they deem appropriate.” What schools directly invest in student-athletes, he noted, would be bound by gender-equity regulations under Title IX, correcting what he called “a very unlevel playing field between men and women” in the NIL arena.

Baker also proposed a new subdivision for the most ambitious schools, with the stipulation that those institutions work together with the NCAA to establish policies on compensation and competitive balance. The wealthiest schools that invest and reap the most, in other words, would literally play by their own rules.

Described as a starting point for discussion, the letter serves as the NCAA’s first step toward establishing a system that meets legal standards and ensures institutional control over financial matters including NIL, rather than ceding student-athlete compensation deals to third-party “collectives” loosely associated with the schools, such as Friends of the University of Notre Dame, an effort led by former Fighting Irish quarterback Brady Quinn ’07. The unregulated nature of that NIL structure in the wake of Alston — and the freedom of movement players now have through the transfer portal to seek better athletic and financial opportunities — presents the challenge that will define the future credibility of American higher education.

Will stakeholders — administrators, alumni, donors, faculty — care enough to require their athletic programs to maintain an authentic connection to the educational mission? Can the leadership of universities generate the political support to take that stand?

Or will the games be treated even more as a separate enterprise, with competitors all but disconnected from the universities they are supposed to represent?

Is there enough time left to construct NIL guardrails, and how would they be received in a courtroom given the reported seven-figure deals that top talent already receives? According to an analysis by the college sports news site On3, at least 100 college athletes are worth more than $500,000 on the NIL market. NBA star LeBron James’ son Bronny, a USC basketball player, tops the list at $5 million.

Dizzying developments continue. On February 5, 2024, Laura Sacks, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Boston, said that members of the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team were university employees under the National Labor Relations Act, creating the possibility that a vote by the players could create the first unionized college sports organization. A similar effort at Northwestern had ended in 2015 when the university appealed to the NLRB, which ruled against some athletes being considered employees while others were not.

Days before the NLRB’s Dartmouth judgment, the Big Ten and SEC announced the formation of a joint advisory group of university presidents, chancellors and athletic directors. Described as a consulting body without authority to enact policy, the advisory group nevertheless inspired speculation that the two conferences, by far the most lucrative in the nation, could use their power to implement a far-reaching agenda that benefits the haves over the have-nots.

A few days after the Dartmouth decision, the SEC announced that its 14 member universities had received a revenue distribution of $741 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year. The average distribution from the conference office, excluding bowl-game expenses, was $51.3 million, an average increase of $1.4 million from the previous year.

That’s big money. And yet . . .

Soon after Alabama’s narrow Rose Bowl loss to Michigan in a semifinal of the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Day, a post on the social media platform X issued a call to support Yea Alabama, an organization described as “The official University of Alabama NIL entity established to cultivate and harness name, image, and likeness opportunities for Alabama student-athletes.”

“In this disappointment, we need to take action,” an unidentified representative says in the video. “We need you to help build Alabama’s NIL entity into the biggest in the country. Yea Alabama needs your support. . . . So take that bitter disappointment that you have, and let’s move into using it for good for NIL.”

They don’t make dynasties like they used to. The Los Angeles Times reported in January that the athletic department at UCLA operated at a deficit of $36.6 million for the 2023 fiscal year. The debt had grown from $18.9 million in 2019 to $62.5 million in 2021 before easing back to $28 million in 2022. The university’s move to the Big Ten later this year is expected to pull in annual media-rights payments of a minimum of $65 million.

In a separate story, the Times reported that the struggles of the UCLA men’s basketball team during the 2023-24 season had been due in part to the challenges of fundraising at a level high enough to secure the best available talent.

Welcome to the era of the unimaginable.

Alabama football soliciting donations?

The UCLA Bruins struggling to attract talent?

In the words of John Wooden, the architect of the UCLA men’s basketball dynasty of the 1960s and ’70s: “Goodness gracious sakes alive.”

Malcolm Moran is the director of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University Indianapolis. He spent more than 30 years as a reporter at publications including The New York Times and USA Today, and in 2007, he received the Curt Gowdy Print Media Award for Lifetime Coverage of Basketball from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.