Which Is Worse, Overreacting to O’Bannon or Failing to Respond to It?

I spent the past few days interviewing conference commissioners and athletic directors, looking for insight into the big changes said to be looming over the NCAA’s highest-profile division.

There were plenty of complaints about the lack of leadership at the association, but few new proposals for transforming Division I. My biggest takeaway: Many longtime critics of paying college athletes now seem willing to consider additional benefits for those who earn degrees.

It’s too early to know if any of the ideas will stick, but that movement will surely pique the interest of lawyers for the former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon,  whom I met with recently in Washington. (Mr. O’Bannon, of course, is at the center of a federal lawsuit that could radically reshape the collegiate-sports landscape.)

Like other people I’ve talked with lately, the lawyers were reluctant to let me discuss their ideas publicly. (I asked them for their settlement demands, something they said they had not discussed substantively with the NCAA.) Suffice it to say that the plaintiffs’ side feels emboldened by recent moves in the case, including a federal judge’s decision to maintain a trial date for next summer.

The O’Bannon matter was cited frequently in my conversations with athletic directors and commissioners, with some high-placed leaders believing it could hasten the kind of changes many critics say are needed in college sports.

Patrick Hruby and I debated that on Twitter this morning. To me, any movement by powerful commissioners and athletic directors signals progress, given that many of those officials have long defended scholarships (and, more recently, $2,000 cost-of-living stipends) as adequate exchange for players’ athletic services.

Mr. Hruby, a columnist for Sports on Earth who writes frequently and eloquently about the NCAA’s challenges, was not impressed. “Drip drip drip,” he tweeted.

He argued that while the openness to increasing player benefits seems significant, it illustrates how athletic departments’ conception of the underlying problem will constrain any real movement.

“Part of the problem is that the schools still conceive of it as their money,” an outgrowth of the larger belief “that it’s their prerogative to decide whether or not a particular class of citizens should have basic economic rights,” Mr. Hruby wrote. “Just the use of the word ‘benefit’ instead of ‘compensation’ tells you something.”

For those inside the NCAA bubble, the talk of benefits was significant for another reason as well. More than one person told me they worry that the NCAA will “overreact” to the O’Bannon lawsuit, instituting radical changes that do not match long-held beliefs.

On the basis of conversations I had, we’re still a long way from that—many athletics leaders are married to the amateur ideal. But it will be interesting to see what happens if the O’Bannon case is certified as a class action, as many legal experts predict. That will certainly put more pressure on the NCAA to bend.

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