NCAA changes will bring power to the players

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Kain Colter

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter speaks at a press conference about unions in college sports. (David Banks / Getty Images / January 28, 2014)

Already deep in the football bunker at training camp in Kenosha, Wis., Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sounded last week as if he barely knew or cared about a judge's ruling likely to shake the college sports world around him.

"I don't think there's a coach in the country right now focused on any of that nonsense," Fitzgerald told reporters. "I haven't wasted my time reading a 99-page document. Just give me the CliffsNotes and I'll coach the team."

Since Fitz is busy recovering from the shock of star running back Venric Mark transferring, consider a CliffsNotes version of the decision U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken's handed down in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA. The story's summary is scary only to NCAA President Mark Emmert and perhaps college coaches worried about controlling players who gain more clout by the day. It goes like this:

Once upon a time in a land of myths and outdated business models, a bold judge declared NCAA amateurism dead. Judge Wilken made clear to the masses that everyone with a stake in college sports still can live happily ever after if the NCAA continues earnest attempts to fix its broken model — progress represented by the Big Five conferences gaining autonomy one day before her ruling. The end? Not even close.

And the Year of the Student-Athlete rolls on.

Kain Colter had the right idea, if not approach. Big-time college athletes can get more of what they deserve, beyond a free education — but without having to form a union or compare their plight to that of steelworkers. It just happened.

The landmark O'Bannon ruling will allow student-athletes enrolling after July 1, 2016, to profit from the university's use of their likeness by as much as $5,000 annually, a small but not insignificant amount. The money allotted was less important than the value of a legal precedent establishing that times indeed have changed.

The Big Five programs can afford paying 85 football players and 13 men's basketball players $5,000 each, if necessary; Big Ten institutions, for example, are projected to generate $44.5 million apiece in television revenue beginning in 2017-18.

The NCAA appealed Wilken's decision, which received more attention but should have less impact than the Big Five's new autonomous model. In overwhelmingly approving a governance structure that allows Big Five schools and Notre Dame to supplement scholarships to include "the full cost of attendance," the NCAA shifted more power than ever to players.

Besides the full cost of attendance on top of a scholarship, football and men's basketball players will be entitled to extended medical benefits and financial assistance so their families can attend select games, among other perks. As important, each of the Big Five conferences will assign three student-athletes to seats on a new 80-person legislative panel — 18.8 percent of the vote.

The most radical change could come after Big Five schools expect to hammer out details that lift restrictions on player-agent contact. After 36 of 98 early entrants went undrafted in the 2014 NFL draft, increased communication should be encouraged — not prohibited. Demystify the process. If these measures have forced college programs to take a more practical view, then that includes the often seedy side of the agent business too.

Of course, such changes would also likely open the door to high-profile college prospects hiring representation to navigate the messy recruiting terrain. That's just one more voice in the ear of an 18-year-old that potentially drowns out reason.

That groan you heard was from every major-college football and basketball coach in America. Running a tight ship just got harder for disciplinarians. As elite players become more empowered, how many will stay away from rigid coaches such as Fitzgerald, who just saw Mark transfer after a suspension for violating team rules that might not exist at other programs? Can old-school coaches survive in a new-age NCAA?

If agents get involved with shopping recruits, Fitzgerald also might have to re-examine his admirable stance of dropping prospects if they visit other schools after committing. Including an early signing date as part of the changes would help everybody.

Coaches don't have to like what's happening, but ultimately they will have to adapt. Loosen up or lose out.

"The concept of college football no longer has any bearing on the quality of the person or students," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, 74, said. "Universities are selling themselves out."

Truth is, universities that essentially serve as minor league affiliates for the NFL and NBA sold out long ago. The O'Bannon ruling and Big Five development simply forced colleges to take a more realistic interpretation of their purpose. If nothing else, the NCAA's next chapter full of unknowns promises to be more honest and less hypocritical — a radical, refreshing plot twist.

You don't have to scour 99 pages of a legal document to read between the lines and see that.

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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