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Two Landmark NCAA Decisions

A day after granting the Power Five conferences the right to determine their own rules regarding key issues such as student-athlete stipends, the NCAA was ruled in violation of antitrust laws by a federal court for preventing student-athletes from using their name and image for commercial purposes.

Jamie Squire

It was a busy week for the NCAA. After the NCAA Board of Directors voted on Thursday that the Power Five conferences had autonomy to determine the rules on several key issues, a federal judge in California ruled on Friday that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust laws by prohibiting student-athletes from marketing their name and likeness in the lawsuit brought forward by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon.

The Power Five autonomy ruling will go into affect this year, though the NCAA will appeal the O'Bannon case ruling and that decision is not yet set in stone.

The Power Five is still a ways away from becoming its own quasi-professional sports league. Unlike the NFL, NBA or MLB, teams in the Power Five conferences don’t have owners, don’t pay athletes as professionals and are all part of the larger NCAA. But it's not completely far-fetched to imagine sometime in the future when the five completely separate from the NCAA and run an independent college football league with a very different set of rules after this week's ruling.

The Pac-12 along with the ACC, Big 10, Big 12 and SEC will now have the authority to determine rules on recruiting, limits on staff size, stipends to better cover the full cost of attendance for student-athletes and insurance benefits for players.

The cost of attendance stipend drew a lot of attention earlier this summer when Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and Big 10 commissioner Jim Delany sat down together to discuss the idea. They both endorsed the NCAA proposal to allow schools to determine the full cost of attendance and cover any additional expenses not covered by a full-ride scholarship. A scholarship covers attendance, housing, a meal plan and any required course material, but leaves out things like travel expenses, laundry and other supplies athletes need in their daily life.

With college football bringing in increasingly more revenue, especially after major conference realignment, new TV deals and some conferences creating their own cable networks, the Power Five can now afford to cover some of these additional costs. Schools within the conference hope they can better recruit athletes by covering these expenses.

Smaller conferences opposed the rule, worried that it would further limit their ability to compete against the Power Five. But the Power Five drive a large percentage of the revenue that the non-Power Five conferences make, and the autonomy measure reduces the chances that the Power Five abandoning the NCAA and creating its own entity, which SEC commissioner Mike Slive threatened might happen last month if the measure wasn’t passed.

While the support for the new autonomy measure may come from the conferences’ desire to earn more revenue from the college sports, USC athletic director Pat Haden pointed out that ultimately, the new measure really is in the best interest of the student-athletes.

A former USC student-athlete himself, Haden has shown great concern for the well-being of those who don the cardinal and gold recently. He supported the NCAA’s ruling that schools could provide athletes with unlimited meals and snacks, adopted the policy of granting four-year scholarships to certain athletes, and will likely implement some of the student-welfare measures that will be legal under the new autonomy rule.

"I’ve been arguing that we need to do more for these kids for years, and this is just the first step," Haden said in a USC press release. "It is great for student-athletes at USC. Some of the things that we have done already with the four-year scholarships and the new meal policy we have, we’ll just continue to do as much as we are allowed to do."

While the ramifications of the O'Bannon ruling are less clear with the process still in litigation, the impact the ruling would have on the landscape of college sports if upheld could be huge. The opinion from the court attacks the notion that college athletes for revenue-creating sports teams are amateurs, a notion so backwards yet so fundamental to the mission of the NCAA.

If the ruling holds, players would be able to earn as much as $5,000 a season that would be saved in a trust until after the players graduated. The NCAA no longer licenses video games, but it did reach a settlement earlier this summer agreeing to pay tens of millions of dollars to be distributed between the athletes that did appear in officially licensed NCAA video games.

No player revenue will come from video games now because of the lack of a licensing deal–a true tragedy, you just can't run a spread offense in Madden like you can in NCAA–but dollars from TV deals, jersey sales and other merchandise would eventually end up in the pockets of the student-athletes who generate that money.

There's still progress to be made from the player's perspective as they still can't freely negotiate contracts to play for different teams during the recruiting process, but all signs certainly seem to be pointing in that direction. Time will tell if and when revenue-generating college athletes will go from amateurs to professionals, but the momentum behind the movement implies it will happen.