Former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey sees California's decision to let college athletes begin making money from their endeavors as an apocalyptic shift for school sports.
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Supreme Court intervention, he says, may be the only hope for preserving the unique system that exists now.
The law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, which allows student athletes to benefit financially from their likenesses and sign sponsorship deals, overrules an NCAA policy prohibiting compensation for players whose work generates millions of dollars for their schools and the association itself.
With other states indicating they may follow California's lead, the law is the crest of a slippery slope, says Dempsey, who was president of the NCAA from 1994 to 2002, a period of significant expansion that included television-rights deals with ESPN and CBS.
In an interview with FOX Business, he predicted a flurry of lawsuits that the high court will ultimately be called on to resolve, and said he hopes justices will recognize the need to limit financial influence on student athletes, whom he believes should prioritize their education.
"One time, I said I thought Congress would be a part of that, but right now, I wouldn’t want it in their hands," Dempsey said. "But I do think the Supreme Court will need to be involved."
Only the high court commands sufficient influence to articulate a clear, distinctive purpose for college athletics and the rationale for avoiding a move toward professionalism, he added.
Big money has turned the NCAA into a powerhouse in the sports and entertainment industry, and Dempsey's record-breaking deals with ESPN and CBS were watershed moments that helped usher in a new era of growth for the organization.
Now, college football and college basketball games are among the highest-rated television programs, and several prominent conferences have their own television network.
It's naïve to believe that the NCAA can go back to simpler times and take money entirely out of the equation, Dempsey said, but its impact is nonetheless damaging.
“There are a number of schools that pay $30 million to $40 million a year in amortization of the facilities that they have built," he explained. "We have become so obsessed with the money aspect of overbuilding costs and inflated salaries, it has become very difficult to control."
California's new law will only complicate the situation further: It basically turns student athletes "into professionals,” Dempsey said. “We would certainly need a new description of amateurism.”