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Ron Harper Jr. of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights protested the NCAA's treatment of athletes during the 2021 men's basketball tournament.

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

This year could be a turning point in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s 115-year history, as it confronts upcoming state and federal legislative challenges and a growing social and political movement advocating for an overhaul of the college sports business, all of which threaten the association’s long-held principles and policies about amateurism and athlete pay.

First up on the NCAA’s spring agenda are hearings next week in the U.S. Supreme Court for a consequential case about association limits on the amount of financial aid athletes can receive from their college or university. The Supreme Court justices could decide as early as this summer whether the association’s rationale -- that the financial limitations create a “level playing field” for college athletes -- violates federal antitrust law.

Another legal battle is anticipated in early July, when a Florida law prohibiting colleges and universities from restricting athletes’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness goes into effect. It will be the first of six NIL laws passed by states to be implemented, all of which override the NCAA’s restrictions on athletes’ ability to be paid by businesses, advertisers, employers or other third-party entities. The laws will also very likely disrupt the association’s concept of amateurism and could be challenged by the NCAA in court shortly after their implementation.

These legal and governmental threats also come at a time of increased demands for the NCAA to allow athletes, particularly Black athletes, who are a majority in the most lucrative sports, to profit from their personal celebrity. This is occurring as the country is also undergoing a national reckoning with systemic racism and a heated debate about whether athletes are exploited by colleges for their talent. The political unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd and the racial health disparities and economic inequities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic have prompted tough questions about the NCAA’s morals and given rise to more athletes speaking out against mistreatment by coaches and administrators.

But college sports insiders who have monitored NCAA governance and the landscape for reform for decades are skeptical a real revolution is underway that will fundamentally change how the NCAA operates. The general consensus is that athletes, college officials and the public will have to wait and see how the association responds to these intensifying pressures -- and no one should hold their breath.

Welch Suggs, a sports media and education professor at the University of Georgia, noted that the college sports structure has withstood scandal, academic fraud and organized crime, none of which spurred major overhaul of the association and its core values.

“You can read about the demise of the NCAA pretty much every decade going back to 1906,” Suggs said.

However, Suggs noted that the current barrage of criticism of the NCAA from multiple sources is unique.

“There’s been so much agitation and so much going on from the student athlete side and people around the sport that it seems like the power is not in the hands of the NCAA and TV networks the way it has been before,” he said.

Just last week, attorneys at Husch Blackwell, which has a national higher education practice, published a report outlining the forthcoming legal implications for college sports. The report flagged potential policy changes with which institutional leaders and lawyers may have to contend, said Jason Montgomery, a partner at the law firm who co-authored the report.

Montgomery, who is a former infractions investigator at the NCAA, has “no doubt” that athletes will be allowed to be paid by third parties within the next six months to a year. But the extent of the NCAA’s limitations on those activities is still up in the air, Montgomery said.

“The one thing that history has shown us is that the NCAA is an established organization and one that has political and institutional capital that has allowed it to continue on in an unencumbered way for a number of years,” he said. “The changes, I think, will still be incremental in higher education and athletics. I don’t think revolutionary change is on the horizon.”

Though they expect reform to move slowly, some college athlete advocacy groups have taken notice and advantage of the moment and what they see as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Six of these groups recently formed the Coalition for College Athletes Advocacy, or CCAA, which called on corporate sponsors of the 2021 Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments earlier this month to acknowledge the “social, educational, racial, and economic injustices” in college sports. The coalition has threatened a coordinated social media boycott of the companies that do not respond or sign and share a petition to demonstrate their support for systemic reform.

“On the eve of the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball championships, we are asking the NCAA’s corporate sponsors, like you, ‘Where do you stand?’” the petition says. “Our question respectfully challenges your company to demonstrate support for the NCAA athletes who risk their health and safety to promote your brands, rather than turning a blind eye to the pressing racial, economic, and educational inequities resulting from the policies and practices of the NCAA and its member institutions.”

The men’s basketball tournament, which began last week, is the NCAA’s most lucrative event and made the association and its member institutions an estimated $800 million in revenue in 2019, most of which comes from television and marketing rights, according to the Husch Blackwell report.

It’s an “opportune time” for college sports reformers to go after that revenue, given that many corporations put out statements in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice reform just months ago, said Emmett Gill, founder and executive director of Athletes and Advocates for Social Justice in Sports and a board member for the Drake Group, both of which are organizations in the CCAA.

“These corporate sponsors fund the activities and efforts that lead to the exploitation of college athletes and inequities between men’s and women’s sports,” said Gill, a former athletics staff member and professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s interesting how many people talk about social justice but are not willing to sacrifice the things required to achieve social justice.”

Gill noted that the NCAA is also facing harsh criticism for providing women’s basketball players in the Division I tournament lower-quality amenities and facilities, and using less stringent coronavirus testing measures than those provided to teams in the men’s tournament.

Current and former Division I women’s basketball players and coaches circulated social media posts last week about the “disrespectful” disparities, which included a single rack of weights provided to the women’s teams versus entire weight rooms for the men, USA Today reported. The men’s teams have also been given the more reliable and expensive polymerase chain reaction tests for COVID-19, whereas the women’s teams receive rapid antigen testing, which are cheaper and more likely to draw false results, according to The New York Times.

Several NCAA officials have since acknowledged and apologized for the shortcomings and said some of the conditions were improved over the weekend. But Gill saw it as a sign that the association is on the defensive and hasn’t meaningfully addressed social inequities.

“Every time these things happen, our male and female, Black and brown athletes are traumatized,” he said. “I don’t think we really see or understand how this plays out on the ground for our college athletes.”

Despite public outcry against the association's policies and practices, Suggs is not confident the groups pushing for reforms, or even athletes themselves, will convince the NCAA’s corporate sponsors to divest from the college sports business. The CCAA has not received a response from any of the 18 tournament sponsors that it sent the letter to, and the petition has only about 500 signatures.

Though athletes have galvanized some support for reform on social media during the tournament through a widely shared hashtag, #NotNCAAProperty, Suggs said it will be difficult to sustain their momentum because they are college athletes only for a short period of time.

The advocates’ best bet for substantial and fundamental change to athletes’ pay structure is the Florida law allowing third-party deals or a federal law that supersedes it in the coming months, he said. Either way, the strength and flexibility of the association will be tested. If Florida athletes begin to be paid and the NCAA is unable to enforce its own rules restricting athlete compensation, it could lose its credibility and unravel, Suggs said.

“There’s never been a precedent for this,” he said.

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