In a recent lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Tennessee attorney general said, “The NCAA is defending a world that doesn’t exist.” It is hard to imagine a better, more concise condemnation even as the association gears up for good times in its annual March Madness tournament.

The NCAA has been the chief governing body for college sports since 1906. It exists so long as its voluntary member institutions are willing to remain subject to its rules. Something has to give.

Maybe it already has.

In recent years, an unprecedented number of universities have switched conferences and even reorganized into super-conferences.

The Big Ten conference has expanded to 18 members, including four schools from a decimated Pac-12. Super-conferences can push back, and the once-dominant NCAA is backpedaling in the wake of lawsuits and mounting economic pressures. After building a sports broadcasting empire for itself, the once heavy-handed NCAA is on the ropes.

The NCAA was originally created to promote football safety.

According to the NCAA’s website, in 1904, there were 18 studentathlete deaths and 159 serious injuries from playing intercollegiate football.

Then came President Teddy Roosevelt, a football fan, who called upon leaders from Harvard, Princeton and Yale to address the mounting problem. By 1919, the NCAA had 170 member institutions and was directly involved in 11 sports. In 1952, it sold live television rights to football games for $1.14 million.

In 1973, the NCAA had 570 members and soon reorganized into the now-familiar Division I, II and III schools. The televised 1979 NCAA basketball championship between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State team earned a record 24.1 television rating.

For years, the NCAA stabilized college sports. Its early safety rules were crucial, and later it implemented 1972’s Title IX equality in education laws to develop women’s teams and expand participation.

For better or worse, it has enacted a host of regulations to preserve amateurism for its member sports programs; issued rules about academic eligibility; imposed limitations on player representation by lawyers and agents; and enacted a number of rules about player conduct and transfers.

Soaring revenue, limitations for athletes

But the NCAA rules have become more rigorous, if not outdated, while its own television revenue has compounded.

I fought its archaic rules in the 1990s. I represented a college basketball player, Nicholas Knapp, from Peoria, who experienced sudden cardiac arrest similar to the recent Bronny James episode at USC. Even though my client recovered, Northwestern University did not want to keep its new freshman player on the team.

The player was willing to transfer to another school, another major school wanted to take him, and Northwestern was eager to allow the transfer. But the NCAA refused to waive its transfer restriction, even though it was a win-win-win for two member schools and the player. So, instead of easily solving the problem, it escalated into a federal lawsuit followed by an appeal my client lost. Like Bronny James, the player never had another episode, and he did play some ball at lesser schools. But unlike Bronny James, his elite basketball opportunity never recovered.

In 2010, the association signed a 14-year NCAA March Madness TV deal for $10.8 billion, then renewed it to the year 2032 for another $8.8 billion. As the NCAA became immersed in the business of sports, its interests seemed to diverge from those of its members and student athletes.

The NCAA has lost or settled three major antitrust cases over limits on assistant coach salaries; suppression of competition from the National Invitational Tournament; and limitations on player licensing and endorsement deals for their own name, image and likeness (NIL) rights.

New lawsuits attack the player transfer restrictions and their NIL rights, and in February the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Dartmouth basketball players are employees eligible to unionize. (Northwestern football players lost a similar unionization effort in 2015.) The NCAA is beginning to back down. Star players can retain certain NIL compensation. Its president recently recommended a plan for schools to pay many athletes $30,000 or more as part of an NIL overhaul. In December 2023, seven states sued the NCAA in federal court, challenging the NCAA’s strict transfer rules as arbitrary and outmoded. There is now a “transfer portal” process to allow more players to transfer. But a few tweaks to the rules are not enough. There must be a paradigm shift.

The emboldened super-conferences, players, universities and even state attorneys general are making headway. Will the new super-conferences even remain in the NCAA? If not, the NCAA might succumb to a death penalty of its own making.

Eldon Ham is on the faculty at IIT/ Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching sports, law and justice. He is the author of five books on sports history in America.

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