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Supreme Court’s NCAA ruling indicates bigger changes may be ahead

What does the recent Supreme Court ruling mean for mid-major basketball?

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Dallas Photo by Andy Hancock/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

In a ruling possibly indicative of events to follow, the Supreme Court unanimously decided Monday that the NCAA cannot place limits on modest education-related payments and benefits to student athletes.

The ruling itself only appears to reference very specific forms of compensation, for instance laptops, tutoring, study abroad, and academic-related monetary awards for athletes playing FBS football, and NCAA men’s and women’s basketball. But much bigger dominoes are sure to fall, perhaps none bigger than the name, image and likeness (NIL) bills that will officially be enacted in six states next week, with more states to follow. The NCAA was once hostile to this kind of thing; with changing public perceptions and charges led by coalitions of current and former athletes, they have indicated more of a willingness to cooperate. But, there appears to be a consensus that they have still been dragging their feet on the NIL issues.

Let’s start with the good: it’s definitely a much-deserved win for student-athletes. The NCAA is a multi-billion-dollar business now, it has been for some time, and it is largely built on the backs of its grossly under-compensated athletes. It’s long overdue all the way around, for both revenue-sport athletes — who have received almost nothing for the millions of dollars they help bring in — and non-revenue-sport athletes, who are far more restricted than the average student in earning an income to pay for the benefits not covered by scholarship.

Of course, the NCAA has long argued against athlete compensation, fearing that any concession would quickly careen it down the slippery slope away from the purity of amateur competition and more towards a professional landscape. In recent years the tone of that argument has seemed more self-serving — as Justice Gorsuch indicated, it is easy to distinguish in-kind education only benefits with professional compensation. That being said, on the surface it appears that a more capitalistic system would favor the “rich” high-majors and increase the gap between them and mid-major schools (and Justice Kavanaugh indicated that the door may certainly be wide open to further and larger compensations in the future). If Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina able to wager hundreds of thousands of dollars back and forth for the any recruits they wanted, it might turn off a few college basketball fans.

To be frank though, mid-majors were hardly getting those blue-chip recruits straight out of high school anyway. Thon Maker, Patrick Baldwin, Jr. and Charles Bassey are certainly not the norm. In fact, with the transfer portal dominating the landscape the way it has, mid-major teams — especially those in the mid- to upper-tier — are racking up former highly touted recruits with careers that never quite took off at major college programs.

That might be where we look back at this ruling in particular, however, as perhaps an evening of the playing field, of sorts. Perhaps when someone leaves the spotlight of a bigger school looking for a fresh start, they might just be looking at the university programs, the study abroad, the paid internships — the “education-related benefits” may become deciding factors in the student athlete’s next landing spot. This may tend to favor the larger or private mid-major institutions with financial stability.

This ruling in itself probably won’t have too big of a negative financial impact on anyone — they are only “modest” benefits after all — but if this leads to bigger wins for the student athletes, which could certainly come soon, then it will likely price out the Chicago States of the world (cry), who struggle financially and athletically. Unable to compete with larger compensation, they will likely find that D-II or D-III more suits their goals as a university.

We have to remember that there’s a reason why mid-major teams are named as such. Even with a so-called “even playing field” to this point, they have significant inherent disadvantages, such as a lack of resources, brand power, and tradition. Kennesaw State and NJIT weren’t exactly on the verge of nabbing a Zion Williamson and making a serious stab at the title. In fact, if a mid-major team ever were to get lucky and go on a run, it would likely lose the key architects in short order. Being an underdog is the life of a mid-major, and why we love it so much. It’s not like the power schools can gain that much more of an advantage on mid-majors than they already have.

But this is what makes college basketball so great. In football, a team can go undefeated and play in a third-tier bowl. In basketball, no matter how invincible a super-team may seem, it can still flame out in a single elimination tournament. Amidst a changing landscape, that will never change.

The jury is still out on the landscape of competition moving forward. Luckily for the athletes, however, the Supreme Court does not have a jury, and more deserved justice may be on the way soon.