Top coaches like Urban Meyer get paid millions annually while players continue to play for scholarships.  (USATSI)
Top coaches like Urban Meyer get paid millions while players continue to play for scholarships. (USATSI)

More NCAA: Supreme Court rules NCAA can't halt 'likeness' settlement

They're going to pay college athletes. They're going to pay them because they're college athletes.

Call it what you want -- a stipend, the full cost of attendance -- it's really just semantics now as the NCAA changes the fundamental way it does business. The how and why of compensating athletes will be perhaps the key issue this week at the annual NCAA Convention in San Diego.

It promises to be one of the most significant events in the association's 108-year history. Mainly because we're suddenly traveling down a road we never thought would never get any traffic ...

The possibility of more agent interaction with players.

Athletes profiting from their likeness. Think licensing fees from video games, apparel, perhaps even autographs.

And when NCAA restructuring is finalized later this year, athletes almost certainly will be sharing in the money they helped produce for their institutions.

Because they are athletes.

If that isn't paying players, we all need new dictionaries. College athletics, flush with new money from TV rights deals and guilt over having all that new money, feels an obligation to share the wealth. It will be done out of a sense of fairness, common sense and, well, fear.

"We want to self-regulate so Congress doesn't have to, so a newspaper [media] doesn't have to," NCAA president Mark Emmert said this week.

In the end, it will be a battle for the NCAA's relevance. Without a new model that includes player compensation, the Big 5 conferences -- SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten -- have suggested they could break away and form their own organization. There would be little use for having an NCAA without those 65 schools.

Leveraging their power, the Big 5 have told the NCAA that change must come or else. They are tired of being more observers to the process than direct participants.

It will start with paying athletes. Nine-figure athletic budgets built with the sweat of uncompensated amateur athletes are now viewed as a grand injustice. It's just the tenor of the times. In the big picture, the amount won't be much. The richer schools will be able to afford more (perhaps upwards of $5,000 per player) than less-affluent institutions.

Paying those athletes some amount of money above their scholarship probably will be optional. But a day when an Ohio State point guard making $5K plays against a Bowling Green counterpart making $1,000 is upon us.

And most everyone seems to be OK with it.

"It seems to be a much less controversial notion today than it was 18 months ago," Emmert admitted. "As we've talked about it more and membership has had a chance to digest, it is being seen as less threatening."

Money talks

It's the concept itself that is making history. An amateur model more than a century old will be significantly redefined. Not all at once, it seems, this week in San Diego but perhaps by the time the 2014 football season begins. If it all sounds like the professionalization of college athletes, well, you can go ahead and think that too.

The pro/college line has been blurred for decades now. Head coaches are making NFL money. Nick Saban's $7 million annual salary is the new $5 million which, a few years ago, was the new $3 million. Assistant coaches, increasingly, have agents and multi-year contracts of their own.

There was a time when bowl swag for players would have been considered illegal. These days we're talking NCAA-sanctioned bowl gifts that include leather jackets, mountain bikes, high-end electronics, even furniture. (The amount from each bowl is capped at $550 per player.)

We live in an age when players can cash federal Pell Grant checks and hit the nearest Best Buy for a 72-inch big screen. Players can tap into the NCAA's Student Assistance Fund that pays for everything from health insurance to graduate student fees to a trip home for a funeral.

Some think that's enough. Any more would be professionalizing perhaps the world's most unique amateur model.

"We differ from a pro enterprise," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. "We don't manage to a profit motivation. It's a very different undertaking. If we ever take that step to establish an employer-employee relationship we will have forever lost our way.

Former NCAA president Myles Brand used to speak dreamily of the Greek amateur ideal -- competition for the sake of improving the mind, body and spirit. In the future, players won't exactly be pros but they won't be those pure amateurs either. How long before someone deems that $5,000 a year simply isn't enough?

The Big 12's Bob Bowlsby says adjusting the NCAA's amateur model is a slippery slope.   (USATSI)
The Big 12's Bob Bowlsby says adjusting the NCAA's amateur model is a slippery slope. (USATSI)

The next iteration of NCAA rules may allow collegiate Olympic athletes to sign endorsement deals to fund their training. The next Johnny Manziel could keep that autograph money -- perhaps having it saved for him in a trust fund for when he leaves school.

It's either that or let the courts decide the future of the NCAA. The association is involved in a bitter lawsuit regarding player likenesses that some have predicted will end up in the Supreme Court.

The whole agent issue could be streamlined. A restructured NCAA has led some to ask: What would be wrong with an undergrad signing with an NCAA-licensed agent while still eligible?

If that sounds outrageous for an organization typically more conservative than mayonnaise, then you've missed the dawn of a new day. Amateurism throughout the years has been a moving target for the NCAA. It is what the association has said it is depending on the climate of the times. As Emmert pointed out, at one point in time, scholarships themselves weren't allowed.

The climate has changed so much lately that the NCAA faces the likelihood of having to redefine an amateurism model it has shaped for the last 11 decades. That is one of the basic truths of the future for an organization that is under fire and perhaps outdated.

The membership that supposedly is the NCAA is finally, really going to take control of the organization. Those Big 5 conferences don't want legislation dictated by the remainder of Division I. The voting structure will be adjusted so that the wishes of the 65 will trump those of the other 285 institutions in D-I.

"Given all the modern pressures that exist ... the five of us [commissioners] and our 65 presidents feel very strongly," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said. "We want to have a new organization."

It is an uprising of commissioners, but also of athletic directors and lawyers and technology. Think of the Darwinism that is in place. Combine bigger, faster, stronger athletes with cutting-edge equipment and you get an epidemic of concussions.

That realization has led to a rash of lawsuits that must be addressed or football itself will die. And if football dies, so does the whole enterprise. The BCS era alone (the last 16 years) saw unprecedented growth in the sport that fuels top athletic departments.

Only the NFL is more important to the American sports consumer than college football. So either out of that guilt or a sense of fairness, players will be paid. The act will be wrapped in those terms like "stipend" and "full cost of attendance."

As if a free education isn't enough. And perhaps it isn't.

Hardly a free education

The 20-hour weekly limit on practice and play is sometimes winked at. "Voluntary" offseason workouts are anything but. Suddenly, that free education doesn't look so free when bodies are put on the line for old State U. The full impact of those concussions is perhaps decades away as medical science catches up.

There are those, like Bowlsby, who think the future gets us dangerously close to the employee-employer relationship. But at the highest level of college football, that free education hangs in the balance at the whim of a coach because the athletic obligation has become a job.

Remember Dan Hawkins' "It's-Division-I-football" rant? In it, the ex-Colorado coach said players get three weeks off per year. Do the math. That's 49 weeks per year when they are accountable in some way to the football program.

While the NCAA isn't obsolete just yet, its real or perceived power has waned. A reform movement 2 1/2 years ago failed miserably. Emmert came under fire for the handling of the Miami case. The enforcement department has lost some of its best and brightest talent.

Meanwhile, conferences have become media conglomerates. Conference realignment -- if not directly influenced by networks -- was indirectly affected by this simple question: What collection of schools makes us the most money? West Virginia is suddenly in the Great Plains-based Big 12. With Missouri, the SEC is in the Midwest. Big East football no longer exists.

All of it became inevitable when the Supreme Court deregulated college football television. An open market created open season for athletic departments seeking the highest dollar for their product. The BCS would have never evolved if not for our insatiable desire for a championship game. That desire has extended to a four-team playoff.

None of them would have come about had not the demand been there. Check your cable bill. You're paying for that desire monthly.

Eventually, those Big 5 conferences forged ahead without the NCAA's blessing in realignment. They not only didn't need the NCAA, they became bigger than the association to which they belonged. As the dialogue has progressed, more than one person has asked the question: What do we want to the NCAA to do?

Certainly its days as a micromanager are over. The absurd is being eliminated. Within the last 12 months it became allowable for schools to offer such condiments as cream cheese at the training table.

If the NCAA is the membership then at least the richest part of it is about to take over because the old ways just don't work.

It has become evident: Those schools now feel compelled to share revenue from a national multi-billion dollar amateur athletic enterprise with the partners who helped make that money.

The players.