SEC, Big Ten Form Advisory Group to Address Concerns in College Athletics

Amidst escalating legal battles for the NCAA, the SEC and Big Ten conferences announced a joint advisory group to address major challenges in college athletics. The partnership forms as both conferences undergo expansion and begin significant media rights deals, strengthening their position as the two wealthiest conferences in the NCAA. 

While the SEC and Big Ten do not have the authority to directly implement rule changes, they plan to utilize their collective power to influence change in the current system. 

“The Big Ten and the SEC have substantial investment in the NCAA and there is no question that the voices of our two conferences are integral to governance and other reform efforts,” Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti said. 

“There are similar cultural and social impacts on our student-athletes, our institutions, and our communities because of the new collegiate athletics environment,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “We do not expect to agree on everything but enhancing interaction between our conferences will help to focus efforts on common sense solutions.”

The long list of legal battles facing the NCAA includes numerous anti-trust lawsuits and several challenges to college athletes’ amateur status. A significant legal victory on Feb. 5 saw Boston’s National Labor Relations Board regional director rule in favor of 15 athletes on the Dartmouth men’s basketball team, classifying them as “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act and ordering them to hold a union election. 

The Dartmouth NLRB decision only applies to the 15 athletes on the men’s basketball team, but the ruling could have a significant effect on similar lawsuits across the country. 

Dec 2, 2023; Atlanta, GA, USA; The Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate with the SEC championship trophy after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo courtesy: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Critical questions remained unanswered if college athletes were to obtain widespread employment status. Who will pay the college athletes? Will it be the universities, the conferences, or a newly formed entity? 

What happens to the non-revenue generating sports – the sports besides men’s basketball and football at the Power Four schools?  Classifying college athletes as employees will come with a host of Title IX and potential Title VII concerns that will need to be addressed. 

And what about the 20,000-plus international college athletes, most of whom are in the U.S. on visas that are not compatible with employment as an athlete? Surely, these athletes cannot be overlooked. 

Numerous concerns need to be addressed and the conferences that generate huge sums of money through media deals have the resources to potentially address some of these issues. 

“I believe the Big Ten and SEC forming this advisory group is significant, because it shows the conferences no longer believe they can rely on the NCAA to solve college athletics’ current issues,” Mit Winter, a college sports attorney at Kennyhertz Perry, told Business of College Sports. 

“I think conferences, and particularly the Power 4 conferences, are going to be the entities driving future change in the college athletics model,” Winter added. “They have the resources to share revenue with athletes in some manner, whether that’s through employment or some other way, so they’re going to explore different ways to do that.”

However, a model that may work for the Power Four conferences will likely not work for the majority of conferences, which is why leaders from Division I-AAA schools along with Football Championship Subdivision members formed a working group consisting of more than 200 stakeholders. The working group was formed in late fall and is attempting to chart a stable path forward amid the chaos in college sports. A major concern among the working group, revealed in a report by On3, is that the employment status of college athletes would force many of their schools to move to a lower division, reduce certain sports to club level, or even cut some sports completely. 

Going forward, conferences will likely play a critical role in shaping the future model of college athletics as the lawsuits against the NCAA continue to play out.

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