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What we know and what we don't about a historic settlement to pay college athletes

The NCAA and its Power 5 conferences agreed this week to a legal settlement that could allow for schools to pay athletes directly.
Ezra Shaw
Getty Images
The NCAA and its Power 5 conferences agreed this week to a legal settlement that could allow for schools to pay athletes directly.

A sea change is coming to college athletics.

On Thursday, the NCAA and the so-called "power five" athletic conferences reached a groundbreaking agreement that seeks to end the century-old tradition of amateurism in college sports by allowing athletes to receive pay directly from the colleges and universities they play for.

The agreement, part of a class-action lawsuit known as House v. NCAA, must be approved by a federal judge overseeing the case, a decision that could be months away.

The proposed settlement has two parts. First, it would distribute some $2.75 billion to athletes who competed before July 2021, when the NCAA first allowed athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness rights. Second, it would create a future revenue-sharing model in which schools could each distribute around $20 million per year directly to athletes.

But far from closing the door on the years of debates and litigation over the question of payments to student athletes, the proposed settlement raises a slate of even more questions: Which athletes will be compensated? How much will they make? Will women be paid equally to men? Will schools that are unable to pay athletes be able to keep up with bigger, richer schools?

"Those are going to be very important details we're going to have to work out," said Matt Mitten, a professor of sports law at Marquette University. "The settlement is just the start."

Here's what we know and what big issues remain unresolved.

What would the proposed settlement cover?

In short, the future-looking part of the proposed agreement creates a system in which schools that are part of Power 5 conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference, all of which voted to approve the proposed settlement — can pay athletes.

Each school will be allowed to distribute up to around $20 million to its athletes, an amount based on a percentage of the average revenue earned annually by the power conference programs. That percentage begins at 22 percent and could go up over time. It's expected that other schools, those outside the Power 5 conferences, will be able to opt in.

"This landmark settlement will bring college sports into the 21st century, with college athletes finally able to receive a fair share of the billions of dollars of revenue that they generate for their schools," plaintiffs' attorney Steve Berman said in a statement.

Will all college athletes get paid?

No. Football players and men's basketball players at large programs are the most likely to receive payments. That's because most of the revenue earned by college athletics departments has historically come from TV contracts to broadcast those two sports. Women's basketball also earns some revenue, and those players too could receive payments.

"It's going to be up to each school to decide how they're going to distribute that $20 million. And that's going to probably vary a lot from school to school," said Mit Winter, an attorney who has represented conferences, schools and athletes in a variety of college sports legal issues.

Schools will also have the option to pay players in sports that generally don't generate revenue — like rowing, soccer, tennis, track and field and more — but it's unclear how institutions will choose to proceed.

And many schools that aren't part of the major conferences may choose not to pay anything to any players at all, which could eventually open a competitive gulf between the haves and the have nots.

As an example, Mitten pointed to his employer, Marquette, whose men's basketball teams have reached three Final Fours despite the school's lack of a football team and accompanying revenue that could more easily fund payments to players.

"How do we maintain the parity and competitive balance among the 350-plus Division 1 basketball schools when not all of them play football and are getting, individually, millions and millions of dollars from these big TV contracts?" he said.

Will women be paid equally with men?

The proposed settlement marks a new frontier for Title IX, the cornerstone civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination at educational institutions that receive funding from the federal government.

Title IX's legacy in college sports has been massive, as schools are required to pay out scholarships in equal proportion to women as they do for men.

Now, schools will have to determine whether and how the law applies to revenue payments to athletes. It will likely be up to litigation to resolve the question, he said.

"There's really no set final answer on how Title IX is going to apply," said Winter. "I think some schools will assume that Title IX is going to make them give 50 percent of that $20 million to female athletes and 50 percent to male athletes. Other schools won't make that assumption."

Are the NCAA's antitrust woes over?

As much as the NCAA may hope this settlement puts the years of antitrust lawsuits behind them, on this one, experts agree: The answer is no.

Of particular concern is the cap that the settlement places on payout, which is set for now at 22 percent of the average revenue earned annually by Power 5 schools. That figure is much lower than the portion of revenue paid out in professional sports like the NFL and NBA, where players take home about half of revenue.

In those leagues, players have agreed to receive that share of the revenue by way of collective bargaining agreements. Those labor agreements provide legal protection from individual lawsuits over compensation, said Mitten. But in college sports, where athletes aren't considered employees, no such bargaining agreements exist — meaning the NCAA is still exposed to antitrust litigation.

The NCAA and schools are already lobbying Congress to pass a federal antitrust exemption for college sports that would protect them from future lawsuits over pay.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.