By the time you read this column, the latest evolution in college sports may have already taken place. At the NCAA Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, voters in the five autonomy conferences and in Division II will determine whether legislation to address the time commitments of student-athletes is expected to pass. And if it does, an important step toward balancing the NCAA’s commitment to academics as well as athletics will have been fulfilled.
It will be billed as a significant moment, but what is important to remember is it’s one part in a broader evolution. It’s easy to lose the perspective of how different college athletics in 2017 looks compared with five years ago. Then, the fallout from conference expansion and the injection of money from conference networks – fueling increases in coaching salaries at the largest schools – dominated the world’s view of college sports. There were cries of unfairness and a lack of integrity that, at times, were hard to dispute. Every day seemed to bring a new challenge from a court of law, a labor board or national critics.
But what came from that was a significant evolution. Five years ago, there were no full-cost-of-attendance scholarships or four-year guaranteed scholarships. There were no funds to help the families of student-athletes competing in college sports’ highest-profile events travel to cheer on their kids. Outside of Division III, there was no student-athlete representation on the highest governance committees. There were regulations limiting the food and snacks that most schools could provide, but the academic standards set for incoming student-athletes were lower than they are today.
And it looks like that evolution will continue: In just two years, a portion of Division I revenue will start being distributed based on the academic performances of each campus. Many schools are starting to provide a lifetime degree guarantee for any former scholarship athlete, and in the autonomy conferences, scholarships can no longer be taken away purely for athletics reasons. When delegates leave January’s convention, there could be new standards in place not just for managing students’ time commitments, but also for overseeing their health care to ensure it is meeting established best practices on every campus. Student-athlete representatives in each division will have cast votes as part of those decisions, something that happened only in Division III five years ago.
You can debate the motivations – whether you want to believe the changes are just responses to legal or internal political pressure points. But there’s no arguing they have improved the lives and welfare of student-athletes.
The momentum from this evolution can’t stop. We live in a country that is, more and more, sticking up for the little guy and demanding fairness from large institutions. Society will continue to demand that the values college athletics touts be matched by its actions. It will insist that athletes be properly cared for, whether through the health or academic support they receive. It will demand they be compensated for their efforts by ensuring they have a fair opportunity to earn a degree in return for their play.
The last five years have helped recenter the focus on student-athletes to ensure they have a fair chance to realize the opportunities in front of them. Make sure the next five years keeps it there.