Recent reforms only first step for college athletes

NCAA Votes to Increase Value of Athletic Scholarships

College Contributor Network

On Saturday, the NCAA's five major conferences -- ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 -- voted overwhelmingly to increase the value of their athletic scholarships, among other reforms.

The regulations, the result of new autonomy granted to the "big five" conferences last spring, constitute perhaps the most significant single-day rules change in the history of college sports. Saturday was, without question, an enormous day for the ever-growing contingent of NCAA-reform activists. The American college sports system is more just to its athletes today than it was last week, and that is worthy of celebration.

But before we plan monuments to Bob Bowlsby and Jim Delany in honor of their moral rectitude, let's recognize the limits of these advancements.

For one thing, reform is far from complete. Though athletes in the major conferences can now be compensated more fairly than they previously have been, they're still not fully rewarded for the revenue they generate. For all the tickets, jerseys and concessions sold and television contracts signed, the players might receive a few thousand dollars to make sure food, rent and books are fully covered.

For reformers, Saturday marked victory in one battle amidst the larger war for college athletes' rights. Players still can't profit from their likenesses on TV or in video games, they can be punished harshly for attempting to benefit from their own autographs, and they certainly can't be compensated according to their market value.

Of course, the NCAA and other leaders of college sports hope their concession on large-conference autonomy and the positive PR of this round of reform will stave off critics and delay more dramatic changes.

The conference commissioners have every incentive to trumpet Saturday's legislation as a grand accomplishment. If we accept this compromise as an adequate resolution to NCAA injustices, schools can escape reform that would more seriously dent their bottom lines.

The most dangerous consequence of Saturday's vote could be future complacency from athletes' rights moderates. Activists will continue to crusade against the NCAA, but the NCAA can hope these limited reforms will appease the increasingly skeptical general public.

The new rules are a good step, but they can't be treated as the ultimate solution.

They're also only worthwhile if they're actually enforced, and there's some reason to be skeptical. The cost-of-attendance stipend doesn't automatically take effect; the conferences (and individual schools in smaller conferences) have to vote to implement them and set the precise figures.

But even assuming that all five conferences do authorize the stipends, there's still room to skirt the new regulations, most notably the provision that coaches can't pull scholarships for football-only reasons. Only intense enforcement will prevent top-tier programs from abandoning underperforming players under the guise of "violation of team rules."

Meanwhile, players' abilities to borrow against future earnings could lead to all sorts of exploitation if not properly policed. Athletes without significant experience in financial planning are perfect prey for predatory lenders.

These new rules are productive in a perfect world, but if the conferences aren't serious about ensuring they work as planned, they won't mean much at all.

Whether Saturday's reforms help eradicate injustice in college sports comes down to how much those in power truly care, about whether they view change as a moral necessity or a PR obligation, about whether they recognize the need to follow up with even more steps forward.

About whether they view Saturday as a final step or a first one.

Alex Putterman is a junior Journalism major at Northwestern University. He recently finished a term as Daily Northwestern sports editor and continues to cover Wildcats sports. He has a wide range of interests but loves baseball above all.
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