How Does Change Come? Gradually, Then Suddenly

Back in April, I made some predictions about changes coming to college sports. (Even if you don’t care about college sports, I think there’s something in this for you, so don’t click “back” just yet.) It’s about how change happens, the way it feels impossible, and then very rapidly becomes inevitable.

The gist of this issue is that the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has overreached, using its supposed moral authority to maintain a standard of amateurism in college sports as nothing more than a moral high horse to punish people for doing things that really aren’t wrong and making themselves rich in the process.

Last week, two major developments happened in this area, and they both fit in almost exactly with what I said.

First, the NCAA’s board of directors decided to allow the “Big Five” conferences to make their own rules. This is roughly the equivalent of interrupting your girlfriend when she’s about to break up with you to tell her that you’re breaking up with her. As I said back in April, “the [Big Five] conferences will demand reform from the NCAA, and they [the NCAA] will try to make it as superficial as possible. This will not be enough, and at some point a major conference (probably the Southeastern Conference) will say that while its schools will still be affiliated with the NCAA, it will establish its own code of athlete conduct and its own process for discipline. Within a few months, all major conferences will follow suit.”

This played out much sooner and slightly different, with the NCAA just throwing in the towel, but the impact is basically the same: The major conferences can make their own rules about … well, about everything pretty much.

Second, the NCAA lost a major lawsuit, which is going to change everything about how they make money. Ed O’Bannon was a great college basketball player for UCLA, and the NCAA used his image all over the place, including on video games and wherever else it made sense. O’Bannon sued the NCAA some years ago, saying that he should get some of that money, to which they replied “amateurism.” They had to say “amateurism” twice because the first time O’Bannon and the other former players couldn’t hear them over the whirring of the money-counting machines in the background.

The effect of the lawsuit is that “the NCAA must eliminate its rules against payments to college athletes for commercial use of their names, images and likenesses.” The screeching sound you hear is a gravy train coming to a stop for the NCAA. For the players, they’re not going to get rich on this, as the ruling limits the value collected per player to $5,000 per year of competition.

But that’s not the point. I don’t believe (and I don’t think many people with IQs over 90 believe) that college sports should just be some weird minor league pro sports. But the idea that an 18-year-old kid pays the price, in the form of not being able to work to make pocket money while at school, so that a bunch of other people can get super duper rich just doesn’t square up.

As I said in April, those days are ending. We don’t know what form it will take, but it’ll start taking that form soon.

Change happens gradually, then suddenly.

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