The Tectonic Plates Beneath Intercollegiate Athletics Continue to Shift
All institutions, whether directly or indirectly engaged in the field of intercollegiate athletics, should know what is happening across the complicated Division I landscape and be mindful of related future opportunities and threats to their institutions. Three key current issues have sparked discussion about the future of the field and may change the face of intercollegiate athletics — and the strategies of many colleges and universities — going forward.
NCAA Under Fire
After a year of uncertainty, the Supreme Court unequivocally rejected the NCAA’s appeal that its rules limiting benefits to student-athletes were necessary to preserve the concept of amateurism in the June 2021 decision on NCAA v. Alston. This decision will permit institutions to provide funding to student-athletes for educational benefits, such as computers, musical instruments, or other services and goods, as well as cash awards for academic achievement. As these additional benefits are not historically included in the NCAA’s cost of attendance limits, the decision opens the door for athletes to receive even greater benefits from schools and raises questions related to finance, compliance, competition and strategy. To confront the sea of change that awaits intercollegiate athletics as a result of this decision, athletic department leaders and universities will need to be attentive to related opportunities and risks and coordinate their institutional responses as they chart a path forward.
Though the Supreme Court’s Alston ruling made headlines in June, there has been a rush of new, pending and draft legislation focused on protecting student-athletes’ opportunities to make money by selling their name, image and likeness (NIL) while playing a college sport. Until recently, student-athletes forfeited those rights as part of the terms of signing scholarship agreements — now every student-athlete has this opportunity. With a number of states instituting new legislation as of July 2021 allowing student-athletes to capitalize on their NIL, the NCAA has adopted interim guidelines to allow athletes in states without NIL laws to earn compensation for the use of their NIL and without jeopardizing their eligibility. This change may require a new set of institutional policies, procedures and tracking tools to be developed and deployed — potentially by the fall of 2021 — which will be particularly challenging given that internal resources are already consumed by preparations for a return to “normal operations” in post-pandemic year one.
Internal pressures are creating instability across intercollegiate athletics as well. The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Oklahoma were formally accepted to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2025, leaving behind the Big 12 Conference (Big 12). This move initiated a domino effect that extended well beyond the Big 12 and SEC, and even outside of the Power Five conferences, reaching Group of Five institutions as well. The Big 12, as a result, added four new members who previously called a Group of Five conference home: Brigham Young University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Houston. Additionally, three of the "Power Five" conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference and the Pac-12) announced an alliance that will, among other characteristics, integrate scheduling opportunities across the conferences in the years to come. Given the benefits, such as media rights revenues, conference payouts and expansive public platforms, that conference membership can provide, university leaders across the country are, in many cases, exploring all options as they attempt to position their institutions as well as possible within this sea of uncertainty.