Depending on your point of view, last week collegiate athletics was either irretrievably lost or finally reformed for justice.
On Thursday, the NCAA Division I board of directors voted to restructure to permit schools from the "Big 5" conferences (Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Pac-12, Southeastern and our own Big Ten) to have more control of rules and regulations. Then on Friday, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken handed down a 99-page decision with a victory, albeit a limited one, for former UCLA Bruins star Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA with regard to the use of names and likenesses of student athletes.
The vote for Big 5 autonomy erases whatever perception of a level playing field remained. For years, the NCAA has tried to pretend the University of Michigan was playing by the same rules as, say, Gardner-Webb University. Now the charade is over. For better or worse, the Big 5 conferences rule the land, and the rest of Division I is going to have to play by their rules (if they can afford to) or get out.
Given that the Big 5 schools like the UW-Madison have larger pots of broadcast and ticket revenues to draw from, the small Division I schools will have a much harder time competing. When the Big 5 schools decide to increase the value of a scholarship to the whole cost of attendance, including trips home, for example, the gap between the schools that can afford to do that and those that can't grows even wider.
In the O'Bannon case, Judge Wilken ruled the NCAA has no right to prohibit student athletes from earning money from the use of their names and likenesses. However, she limited the maximum amount to $5,000 per year; schools can create trusts, with the money payable after graduation.
In the broader sense, Wilken confirmed that Division I college football and men's basketball are big business, not amateur sports -- which should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever bought a ticket to a game.
Undoubtedly, college athletics has changed this week. The Big 5 conferences will use their new control to expand their revenues and likely provide more benefits for the student-athletes they purport to serve. Will critics of the NCAA and the small conference Division I schools be satisfied with the reforms? Likely not, which means the battles in court for the next few years will have no less intensity than the battles on the fields.