After two momentous outcomes poised to reshape the college sports landscape, athletics officials across the country say one thing remains absent as they prepare to confront new financial and philosophical hurdles: clarity.
Doug Fullerton, commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, likened the current climate among college officials to trying to walk through an unfamiliar, pitch-black room with no idea of the furniture that might stand in the way.
"We are bumping into things, and we don't even know exactly what they are yet," Fullerton told USA TODAY Sports. "It's Pavlov's first level of learning, where you don't know, and you don't know that you don't know. ... I've never seen anything like it. It's almost like I don't know where to reach to get a handle on it to be able to stabilize myself."
Questions persist about the NCAA Division I board of directors' vote -- which was expected -- to grant more autonomy to schools in the five high-revenue conferences: the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. If the legislation moves forward, schools would have the option of giving athletes the full cost of attendance, which is typically a few thousand dollars more than the traditional value of a scholarship.
More uncertainty surrounds the long-term ramifications of the 99-page ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit. Wilken ruled Aug. 8 that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by barring schools from paying athletes for use of their names and likenesses. Athletes could receive some compensation in the form of a trust once their careers are over.
In the coming years, schools will reassess, and perhaps redefine, the role college athletics plays on their respective campuses and how much to invest in it. Schools must determine how they can afford to fund enhanced scholarships. And they must weigh the risks, competitively or otherwise, of not financially keeping pace in the restructured college sports model.
"These are turbulent times, no question," Boise State athletics director Mark Coyle said. "There are going to be changes. And it's going to require athletic departments at any level to successfully adjust to that."
Will Gap Grow?
Boise State football has authored one of the most compelling college football story lines of the century, becoming a perennial national contender. But can that success continue now that schools from high-revenue conferences have been given more freedom to create their own rules?
Boise State has a $37 million athletics budget -- less than one-fourth that of national leader Texas -- and has 450 athletes competing in 20 sports, Coyle said. He added that Boise State, which competes in the Mountain West Conference, secured a stadium-naming partner for $12.5 million that will help with new financial demands in the restructured model.
The Power Five conferences "say they want to take care of their student-athletes," Coyle said. "I can promise you that Boise State, the Mountain West, the MAC, the others, we want to take care of the student-athletes as well. I think sometimes that message gets lost."
A gap has always existed between the so-called haves and have-nots, most notably in college football, but some fear it might grow. The Mid-American Conference has created a six-member task force to study the implications of providing cost-of-attendance stipends to athletes.
"People might have massage therapists or hot-and-cold tubs or 55,000 nutritional meals and all that stuff," Eastern Michigan athletics director Heather Lyke, chairwoman of the task force, told USA TODAY Sports. "But those are distinguishing factors that already exist right now between our conference and the autonomy 65 schools. But if you change one of the fundamental principles in what a (scholarship) looks like, that's a significant fundamental principle that we want to be able to adopt as well."
Financial disparity also exists among schools in the Power Five conferences. Rick Hart, the Southern Methodist athletics director, said the reality for everyone outside the "top dozen or so schools" in the country is that a gap exists and it is "a growing gap."
John Currie, the Kansas State athletics director, said his school still managed to spend $125 million in new facilities the last two years despite having the second-lowest athletics budget ($65 million) in the Big 12.
"We are already raising revenues at a pretty substantial clip," Currie said. "There is a ceiling. At some point, you've got to cut. And when you start cutting, sooner or later you will be taking away from somebody's opportunities."
Steve Patterson, the Texas athletics director, told USA TODAY Sports his biggest concern with the shifting landscape is "if you consolidate too much of the revenue and you take the potential financial impact out to the most extreme, you are going to wind up with fewer sports and fewer scholarships. Considering that athletic scholarships, next to the G.I. Bill, are the largest single source of college scholarships out there, that would be a tragedy."
'Wild Wild West'
Debbie Yow, the North Carolina State athletics director, said she met last week with the school's legal counsel to discuss initial questions about the O'Bannon ruling, potential Title IX implications chief among them. One such question: Does the ruling apply to only football and men's basketball players?
"As one person said to me, 'It's the Wild Wild West,'" Yow said of the overall climate. "We really don't understand the implications yet of the O'Bannon case. We feel like the ground moved beneath our feet, and we just want to get back on firm ground."
Patterson was pleased that Wilken's ruling preserved the college model, though he said more clarity is needed on the trust concept, among other issues.
"What does it mean with Title IX?" he said. "Where does the ultimate ownership of the rights reside? If we are now paying for those rights, do we get to use them? I don't know. And what is the impact on the budget of all those questions?"
Hart said one of the most disappointing aspects in the athletics climate now among administrators or various leaders in the industry is that "it seems that we have lost some collegiality and there is a bit of distrust among pockets of groups ... It (distrust) is more present than it has ever been."
If college sports becomes centered on fewer programs using "semiprofessional-type kids," Fullerton said, "That would definitely drive me out. Quite frankly, I already hear people talking about moving athletic programs over to a foundation to get it so it's not subject to Title IX."
From conversations with other college officials, Fullerton said emotions run the gamut and include anger and even resignation. Anxiety and especially uncertainty also abound.
"People who think they know what the world will look like in three or four years, no matter what they think, they know they are wrong," Fullerton said. "I think we'll be surprised."
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