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Fighting perceived injustice sounds good in theory, but sometimes it creates more problems when put into practice — especially when the perception was questionable to start with.

It’s increasingly evident that the well-intentioned quest to achieve economic justice for college athletes will hurt about as many as it will help. Call it collateral damage. Call it unintended consequences. Call it what you will, but Power Five schools are lining up to pay escalating amounts of money to amateur athletes, and the chain reaction will inexorably harm a huge number of their counterparts at small colleges, as financial pressure crushes athletic budgets that were already approaching the breaking point.

In the wake of high-profile courtroom victories like O’Bannon vs. NCAA and National Collegiate Athletic Association vs. Alston — which legalized “cost-of-attendance” stipends, then added payments of nearly $6,000 per head for satisfactory academic performance — the supporters of paying college football and basketball players who helped bring in millions of dollars for their schools have opened the door to paying nearly ALL amateur athletes at the nation’s largest schools, including the University of Nebraska. Because of their bait-and-switch tactics, they’re on the road to starving their lower-profile brothers and sisters, who are facing the grim reality of greatly reduced access to college sports.

In February 2020, I took a comprehensive look at the upcoming rush to compensate amateur athletes who allegedly were being exploited by colleges and universities. At the time, I was less than enthusiastic about the whole process. I suspected that colleges would end up paying entire groups of players who were never exploited to begin with, and the rising costs would eventually force smaller schools to drop some of their sports.

It’s happening faster than I thought. While the whole scenario may take years to play out, the rich are indeed getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Without doubt, athletes at smaller schools will pay a big price. They’ll lose competitive opportunities as schools are forced to cut their losses.

Because of its solid financial footing, achieved largely due to the unwavering support of its football fans, Nebraska appears to be well positioned among the eventual winners. You could say the same for many other schools in the Power Five football conferences, although with Trev Alberts as athletic director, there’s reason to believe the Cornhuskers will handle this better than many of their peers. It’s reality, so for large schools like Nebraska, who can afford it, it’s adjust or die.

An April 6 ESPN story reported that only 22 schools nationwide said they currently had a plan in place to maximize the allowable amount of cash that, according to the Alston ruling, they can give players for getting good grades. Three days later, Nebraska’s athletic department announced it is one of what ESPN claimed are only 20 additional schools who reported they have solid plans in place to do such a thing (the Huskers’ “N-Vest Nebraska” program will start this fall).

Yet there’s a bigger issue in play here.

I find it ironic that in the midst of the NCAA’s (and sports media’s) celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX — which originally was about giving female athletes more competitive opportunities — that much of the sports media (looking at you, ESPN) now simply look the other way as those competitive opportunities begin to vanish around the nation. The current trends will certainly remove opportunities for non-revenue sport athletes who want to go out and compete and represent smaller schools. These are the future doctors, lawyers, scientists and entrepreneurs who “won’t go pro,” as the NCAA used to boast about in its TV spots. They’ll have to forgo advanced learning about quaint, old-fashioned things like teamwork, problem solving and grace under pressure. Are we still concerned about those things?

This accelerating sports arms race greatly favors athletes with enough natural ability to earn the attention of the Alabamas, Georgias and Ohio States, schools that can spend smaller schools into great disadvantage, and some into oblivion. It’s more reason to divide the haves from the have-nots and either let the Power Five secede from the NCAA, or set up their own NCAA division where they can play by their own rules. There’s a case to be made for basketball’s Power Six to be included, because Creighton and Georgetown basketball will be paying players just as freely as USC or Florida State will.

This is not just a potential hazard. It’s already too late for thousands of college athletes who saw their teams dissolve. Between March and October 2020, 300 sports teams were dropped by 78 colleges and universities, according to The Conversation, an academic-based website. About half were tennis, golf, soccer, cross country and swimming/diving teams. Shockingly enough, it turns out at nearly all those schools, there were no millionaire coaches, and the vast majority of sports revenue was needed just to support its teams. Certainly, the immediate reason for most of the axed programs was COVID-19-related loss of income, but that only serves to show how tight the athletic department budgets are these days at many American institutions of higher learning.

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The NCAA is complicit in the upcoming shutdown of many small-college programs, which no doubt will include a number of football teams, partly due to its historic reluctance to even consider any type of compensation for football or basketball players who help drive the revenue machine at most larger schools, but mostly due to its pigheaded unwillingness to exempt football from Title IX scholarship tallies. This is ludicrous, because women are allowed to play college football, and several have done so. Therefore, football is not a men’s sport and should not be considered as such when counting scholarships. 

The adjudication of Title IX should be done with a commonsense approach, one that acknowledges the inherent realities of each sport. For example, volleyball and basketball can safely schedule almost three times as many games as football can, due to the inherent reality that football is more physically punishing and requires more recovery time. This should not be interpreted as more competitive opportunities for volleyball and basketball players. Neither should larger rosters and number of scholarships be interpreted as more competitive opportunities for football players.

Name, Image and Likeness is a separate animal from the previously mentioned payments. In the February 2020 column, I supported NIL because of each player’s inherent right to profit from his or her own likeness if another entity is being significantly enriched by that player’s performance or presence. I still support that ideal, but the spirit of the law is being twisted beyond recognition as cooperatives that represent teams offer large sums to players who are yet to play their first game for said team.

How many top athletes do you think will sign letters of intent at schools that have no vigorous plan for paying them? The better recruits will only opt for schools that have proven they can and will pay full cost of attendance, academic performance and have a robust NIL program. The field of competitors for four- and five-star athletes was always relatively small, but now even the three-star athletes will be less available to middle major schools.

In 2020, I called for regulation of NIL. My idea: Mandate that 100 percent of each athlete’s NIL funds be placed and kept in a trust through the end of his or her first complete season of play, at which point up to half could be withdrawn, then require that at least 50 percent of any subsequent NIL earnings be held in that trust at a fair market interest rate until age 26, when the athlete is no longer eligible to be included on a parent’s health care plan. When you hear about how frequently professional athletes end up in financial trouble, it makes sense to protect amateurs with this kind of requirement. 

Also, it almost goes without saying that the line must be held on the transfer portal, otherwise the current college free-agent atmosphere will turn into a NIL collective bidding circus. Imagine, if transfer rules get looser, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud playing for the Buckeyes for $5 million this fall, transferring to Alabama for $10 million in 2023 and then to Clemson for $20 million in 2024.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day recently told Buckeye football boosters that it will take at least $13 million a year in NIL money to keep his team together. That is market-based and justifiable (although each player should have only one transfer portal opportunity with immediate eligibility during his career), and it’s within the spirit of NIL legislation, because you’re paying players who have already proven their worth.

Then there’s the case of incoming Texas freshman quarterback Quinn Evers, who has already received enough NIL money to buy an Aston Martin before he ever takes his first snap for the Longhorns. Apparently he was compensated in advance of being exploited by the University of Texas.

I still favor allowing Power Five football and basketball teams to play smaller-division schools, because those game-day payments often keep the smaller schools’ athletic departments financially solvent. But when it comes to NIL, cost-of-attendance and academic payments, LSU, Michigan, Baylor and Nebraska should be competing with each other, not with the mid-majors. Schools that decide not to pay their athletes would play under different rules in their smaller division. A small school that insists on defining “economic justice” as paying its players would move up to the big boys division. That way, maybe a few wrestling and swimming programs will stay financially viable in the Mid-American Conference, and baseball and softball may survive in the Mountain West.

The collateral damage is reality, and it’s regrettable, but measures like this could reduce it in the future.