How We Got to Pay-for-Play in College Sports

The settlement in House vs. NCAA is just the latest way station in a 70-year buildup and teardown of castle amateurism.
College sports are entering a new era after the power-conferences schools and NCAA settled the House vs. the NCAA lawsuit.
College sports are entering a new era after the power-conferences schools and NCAA settled the House vs. the NCAA lawsuit. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are entering a new era, where college athletes finally have been granted access to their athletic departments’ well-stocked ATMs. The wealthy administrators at the NCAA and power-conference schools got here with a bayonet point digging into their spines, pushed to enlightenment by the likelihood of extending their long losing streak in court. But, hey, all that really matters is that they’re here.

The very things that earned SMU a death penalty in the 1980s, and hundreds of other schools lesser NCAA sanctions, are now institutionally blessed and available to star football and basketball players. The irony comes in the shorthand appellation of the landmark lawsuit that got us here: The named plaintiff in “House vs. the NCAA” is Arizona State Sun Devils swimmer Grant House, and his sport is one of the most jeopardized by the diverting of funds to pay this multibillion-dollar settlement. Be careful what you sue for.

It’s tempting, in this new world, to drop Ferris Bueller’s “life comes at you fast” line here. Except, no, that’s not true at all. This chapter of life came at us very slowly, until it gained sudden speed at the end.

This was a 70-year buildup and teardown of castle amateurism. And these are the money-grabbing milestones along the way that brought us to this point:

Walter Byers and ‘student-athletes’ 

The first executive director of the NCAA coined that term in response to a worker’s compensation suit filed by the family of Ray Dennison, a football player at Fort Lewis A&M who died shortly after an in-game injury in 1955. The goal was to position college athletes as non-employees and amateurs, compensated by scholarship only. Dennison’s family lost the suit, and an entire industrial ethos evolved around the “student-athlete” term.

Byers ran the NCAA for 37 years, from 1951 to ’88. He helped make the NCAA tournament a cultural phenomenon—and a cash cow. (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan, then Hakeem Olajuwon and Danny Manning, did a lot of the heavy lifting without being compensated. But Byers sat atop the org chart.)

Toward the end of Byers’s buttoned-down tenure, the association lost a landmark Supreme Court decision that wrested control of TV rights and revenue away from the NCAA and gave it, in a roundabout way, to the conferences and individual universities. That set in motion the explosion of media-rights money—which, dovetailed with the advent and evolution of ESPN, opened up new vistas of broadcast availability and profitability.

But a largely unnoticed internal change was afoot at the same time: Byers turned against the “student-athlete” ideal he created and helped fortify. From a 1986 Sports Illustrated profile by Jack McCallum: “Asked about the NCAA’s problems at the time, Byers skillfully turned the interview away from critical questions about his administration to his own probing thoughts about an ‘open division’ in college athletics, an idea that meant a dismantling of the present concept of amateurism to accommodate the big-money climate of the ’80s. It was heavy stuff, especially coming from a steadfast proponent of amateurism.”

In 1995, Byers wrote a memoir that questioned everything he and the NCAA had built and stood for. Unsportsmanlike Conduct posited athletes should have the same access to the free market as their coaches and the schools raking in the TV money. It was a starting turn that never gained much traction.

SEC expansion and innovation, in three acts

In 1990, Southeastern Conference commissioner Roy Kramer started what has been (for now) a three-act arc of seismic change under three different leaders. 

Perhaps spurred on by a clandestine December 1989 push in the Big Ten to add the Penn State Nittany Lions, Kramer plotted his own course of expansion. In ’90, the league announced it was bringing onboard the Arkansas Razorbacks and South Carolina Gamecocks as its 11th and 12th members, with a new structure and postseason plan. The SEC would split the league into two divisions and create the concept of a conference championship game. The rest of FBS eventually followed that template.

Twenty years later, Kramer’s successor, Mike Slive, added the Texas A&M Aggies and Missouri Tigers and birthed the SEC Network. Slive also championed the idea of a playoff, garnering enough popular and institutional support to eventually wear down and win over obstinate traditionalists.  

Less than a decade after that, Kramer’s successor, Greg Sankey, took his turn at implementing massive change. He brought aboard football bluebloods, the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners, then spearheaded the charge to a 12-team playoff. 

The SEC took over college football competitively. It also prospered financially, with commensurate stadium expansions and salary explosions. But just as Byers wondered, amid the revenue gusher, whether resolute resistance to at least a semi-professional model was feasible or ethical, SEC leadership began coming around to a new reality. 

As early as 2010, Slive started publicly theorizing about college athletes perhaps having agents. The idea, just like Byers’s change of heart, didn’t gain much national traction.

The ACC wounds, then essentially kills, Big East football

In 2003, the Atlantic Coast Conference pirated the two most successful football programs from the Big East, the Miami Hurricanes and Virginia Tech Hokies. It also added the Boston College Eagles, which added little and were a geographic outlier (a decision that still hasn’t worked out very well for either the league or the school). 

Eight years later, amid roiling realignment negotiations nationwide, the ACC all but finished off the Big East as a viable football league by grabbing the Pittsburgh Panthers and Syracuse Orange.

The realignment spasms of 2010 to ’12 made clear that college sports had lost its own alleged plot. It was impossible to argue that major decisions shredding geography and tradition were not solely based on maximizing profit. And if the overriding principle was finding more cash, then it became harder to justify cutting the athletes out of the deal.

Jim Delany births the Big Ten Network

This was the true media revenue game-changer, as the commissioner turned his league into a TV network and kept all those profits within the conference. BTN hit the air in 2007, just in time to broadcast the Appalachian State Mountaineers’ historic upset of the Michigan Wolverines, and a foothold was gained despite limited initial distribution. Every other conference with the capability of creating its own network—in conjunction with a major broadcasting partner—would eventually do so.

Delany had already pioneered the concept of fracturing conference math with the addition of Penn State, as the Big Ten became 11. More were on the way. To help feed the cable-subscription beast, the Nebraska Cornhuskers were added to the West. Then, the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights were added to the East. What the league mostly lacked in terms of national champions in football and men’s basketball, it compensated for with the highest revenues in college sports.

Delany was a business visionary but a reform reactionary. He was a playoff obstructionist before finally acquiescing, and one of the most important defenders of the amateurism status quo. As Big Ten profits soared, Delany very much wanted to keep that money from trickling down to the athletes.

Among his quotes from the witness stand in 2014 in the O’Bannon vs. NCAA antitrust suit: 

  • “There wouldn’t be a Rose Bowl if either they or we were operating in a very different wavelength in terms of paying players.”
  • “These games are owned by the institution, and the notion of paying athletes for participation in these games is foreign to the notion of amateurism.”
  • “There is no athlete’s share of broadcast rights.”

The Longhorn Network goes on the air

ESPN bestowed Most Favored Nation status on Texas by creating the school’s own network, further upsetting the balance of power in the Big 12 and setting the stage for more realignment. 

The station flickered to life in August 2011. Nebraska had already announced its departure from the league, in no small part because it was fed up with Texas. Texas A&M and Missouri would follow, and the conference added geographic outlier West Virginia. 

Ten years after the Longhorn Network added to the destabilizing of the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma did more damage by clandestinely agreeing to join the SEC. That kicked over other massive realignment dominoes: the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins to the Big Ten in 2022, then the complete destruction of the Pac-12 in ’23. The ACC is now on the clock.

Taylor Branch, Sonny Vaccaro and Ed O’Bannon pull back the curtain

Vaccaro, the sneaker salesman/impresario who helped turn the athletic shoe business into a massive industry, had been an amateurism antagonist for years. In 2009, he helped make O’Bannon—a star on UCLA’s 1995 national championship basketball team—the named plaintiff in one of the first lawsuits that would hammer cracks into the foundation of castle amateurism.

Branch, a Pulitzer Prize–winning civil rights author, took heed of what Vaccaro was saying and doing. In 2011, he wrote a powerful story in The Atlantic that coincided with his book, The Cartel, which assailed the NCAA and its amateurism rules as corrupt. Branch led the Atlantic story with Vaccaro calling out the hypocrisy of college sports. Branch’s piece might not have been as important and dramatic as Walter Cronkite turning hearts and minds against the Vietnam War, but it was persuasive and influential.

Meanwhile, the O’Bannon case went to trial in 2014 and judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws in withholding payments to athletes. The ruling at the time called for the now-quaint sum of less than $6,000 to be made available to athletes for each year of their eligibility.

The NCAA appealed, doubling down on a doomed hand and continuing what would be a remarkable string of legal defeats. In June 2021, the Supreme Court slapped a 9–0 shutout of the NCAA in ruling on the appeal of the O’Bannon decision. In July of that year, name, image and likeness (NIL) compensation for athletes was officially ushered into college athletics.

House vs. NCAA

Three years into an admittedly chaotic immersion in the world of NIL and frequent transfers, here is what hasn’t happened: College sports has not collapsed. Despite decades of doomsaying about the consequences of paying the players, fans are still watching and attending in massive numbers. 

In fact, it can be argued that college athletics as a whole has never been more popular. The advent of the 12-team College Football Playoff this fall is expected to be another injection of interest and enthusiasm. Oh, and revenue.

Against that backdrop, and facing its 97th consecutive loss in court, the NCAA and the power conferences settled House on Thursday. There are some objectionable aspects to it, most notably the strong-arming of the 27 non-power leagues into paying a disproportionate amount of the multibillion-dollar damages. And there are vast swaths of details to work out, with only vague concepts being publicly discussed at present.

As significant as this moment is in college sports, it’s likely also just a way station along the path to even more change. It remains quite possible the leaders will screw the whole thing up irreparably.

But this is no time for a requiem. It’s time for an acknowledgement of hard-earned new reality. It only took 70 years of assailing the ivory tower walls of castle amateurism to get to this point; give it a chance to live and breathe and grow.

Pat Forde


Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.