Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards in 2023–2024:
College Athletics

Navigating changes in college sports.

An athletic director once famously likened collegiate athletics to “the front porch of the university. It’s not the most important room in the house, but it is the most visible.” This is especially true for Division I universities that compete in men’s football and basketball, where teams appear regularly on national television, pack 100,000-seat stadiums and 15,000-seat arenas, and pay head coaches multimillion-dollar salaries. But it is true, too, for institutions that compete at lower levels and where sporting contests forge one of the strongest bonds with alumni, attract new students, and help shape institutions’ reputations.

College athletics often intersect with both legislative activity and legal decisions, including Title IX policies and the issue of compensation for student athletes. Recently, the latter has received significant attention in news—on front pages as well as in sports sections.

Updated March 18, 2024.

Name, Image, and Likeness

The debate over whether college athletes—or at least some—should be compensated is over. It is already happening. To some, it’s long overdue. To others, it’s unsettling. In trying to assert control over the process of athlete compensation through name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is facing major headwinds from differing NIL laws in 32 states (and counting), and most recently, from a February 23 federal court injunction negating an NCAA rule prohibiting NIL deals for prospective athletes.

The NCAA was forced to change its ban on compensating athletes when it lost a 9–0 ruling on a related issue in the Supreme Court in 2021. The NCAA quickly develop NIL rules for its members. Under the rules, student athletes can hire agents and receive a cut from sales of jerseys and posters, as well as appear in local or national television ads for car dealerships, sports drinks, charities, and more. NIL compensation can be serious money. For example, LeBron James’s basketball-playing son, Bronny, carries a reported NIL valuation of $5.8 million playing at the University of Southern California, and Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne has received $3 million from streaming photos to 10 million followers on Instagram and TikTok.

In the past three years, football powerhouses have lined up groups of donors, called collectives, to promise lucrative deals to athletes. According to the New York Times, some 120 collectives have been created, at least one for every college in the five major football conferences. Some collectives may face IRS scrutiny when and if they apply for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Their public benefit and charitable purposes were questioned in a May 2023, 12-page memo from the IRS Chief Council’s Office. In any case, at its January convention, the NCAA proposed a significant amendment to its NIL rules, amendments that could become effective in August 2024. The amendments would attempt to standardize NIL processes across member institutions, and by allowing all Division I institutions to directly pay their athletes through NIL deals, the amendments could also alter the role of collectives, in some cases making them unnecessary.

The potential change to NCAA NIL rules, however, is being overshadowed by a February federal district court ruling in the Eastern District of Tennessee. District Court Judge Clinton Corker’s ruling against the NCAA resulted from a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia over an NCAA investigation of the University of Tennessee and its associated NIL collective for an NCAA rules violation that prohibits using NIL deals as a recruitment incentive for future athletes. The court’s injunction will enable collectives to pursue athletes still in high school and those enrolled at another university and considering transferring. The court’s ruling affects prospective athletes in all 50 states; they will now be promised the financial rewards of NIL contracts just like their fully enrolled counterparts. Many feel that “under the table” deals to entice recruits are already widespread. The NCAA may appeal, but in the meantime, it has announced that it is suspending all NIL-related investigations for rule infractions. And while the biggest money to be made by athletes is at the powerhouse universities and in top divisions, athletes at every college, small or large, now control their NIL. It is truly becoming an open market among colleges for recruiting and retaining top athletes.

The NCAA is supportive of congressional action to standardize the various state NIL regulations. Two bipartisan bills on NIL have been introduced in the U.S. Senate. But whether either will advance is very much an open question. In addition, Judge Corker’s decision is likely to complicate both bills.

Classifying Athletes as Employees

If the ruling out of the district court in Tennessee wasn’t enough, the NCAA faces three other antitrust lawsuits on athlete compensation—two in California and one in Colorado.

In December 2022, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office in Los Angeles found merit to a National College Players Association complaint alleging that college athletes should be classified as employees with the right to unionize and bargain. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo reiterated her 2021 guidance that athletes do have the right to organize and were employees, not “mere student athletes.” The players association brought the complaint against the University of Southern California (USC), the PAC-12, and the NCAA. Hearings were held in Los Angeles in December 2023 and January 2024, and featured testimony from former USC football players and arguments by NLRB lawyers restating their December 2022 position that athletes should be considered employees under federal labor law. A ruling would allow players to receive direct compensation, worker’s compensation, and the ability to unionize. In another case, the Dartmouth College men’s basketball team petitioned the NLRB, seeking to be defined as employees with the ability to unionize. A hearing was held in October 2023, and in early February 2024, the NLRB regional director ruled in favor of the team. The Dartmouth players subsequently voted to unionize and be represented by the local Service Employees International Union. Dartmouth has appealed the ruling to the NLRB national board.

In yet another case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing the case of Johnson v. NCAA. The case was brought by a Villanova University football player and other plaintiffs who argue that all Division I athletes should be employees and get paid minimum wage. The court could determine whether professionalism for collegiate athletes is legally plausible.

The NCAA has long insisted athletes are amateurs and should be treated as such. During an October 2023 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, NCAA President Charlie Baker said, “To enable enhanced benefits while protecting programs from one-size-fits-all actions in the courts, we support codifying current regulatory guidance into law by granting student-athletes special status that would affirm they are not employees.”

Conference Realignment

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Southern California (USC) decided their football teams weren’t making enough competing in the PAC-12. Both decided to bolt to the storied Big Ten to play the powerhouse universities in the Midwest and on the East Coast. They were soon followed by the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, likely spurred, as were UCLA and USC, by the Big Ten’s lucrative football TV contract. The University of Arizona, Arizona State, and the University of Utah soon left the PAC-12 to join the Big 12, and then Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, moved to the ACC. Oregon State and Washington State, the only remaining PAC-12 members, have reached a football scheduling agreement with the Mountain West Conference for the 2024 season, with the possibility of greater integration of teams and sports later. The conference switches mean repeated transcontinental flights throughout the year for most men’s and women’s sports.

In what some see as a reaction to the major conference consolidation, NCAA President Baker revealed a plan to create a new subdivision for top college athletic programs, primarily intended for the top football programs. These institutions would be given the flexibility to make many of their own rules and design their postseason playoffs, and not be dependent on the votes of any of the majority of Division I institutions. Baker’s plan would require that these institutions agree to “invest at least $30,000 per year into an enhanced educational trust fund for at least half” of their student athletes, essentially allowing the top programs to pay their athletes directly. The NCAA’s Division I Council was tasked at the January NCAA Convention with developing a framework for the new subdivision.

Medical and Gender Protections for Athletes

An NCAA “transformation” panel recommended a raft of changes for Division I schools, including a requirement to provide injured players with at least two years of medical coverage after college and the funds to complete their degree if they leave college without a diploma. And, as discussed in a previous section, the Department of Education is finalizing new Title IX regulations that would add gender protection for LGBTQ students. The Biden administration has proposed a rule specifically addressing transgender students’ eligibility to play on male or female teams. Twenty-three states have moved to bar transgender students from playing on teams other than the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Sports Gambling

The explosion of legal sports gambling across America presents complications for colleges and universities, in part due to a dizzying array of state rules. Two-thirds of states legalized sports betting after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling allowed it in New Jersey. And today, some states permit betting on college teams but not on in-state teams, with exceptions for March Madness. Some allow wagers not only on outcomes but also on point spreads, half-time scores, and other so-called “props.”

Several university athletic administrators sought to benefit from betting companies’ sponsorship dollars, allowing the companies to promote gambling on their campuses (even on their own teams and by their own student body), saying that doing so would provide needed revenues for athletic programs. Fortunately, officials at Michigan State University had second thoughts about a partnership with Caesars Sportsbook and ended the deal in May 2023. The University of Colorado and University of Maryland also ended their agreements with sports betting partners. A major concern is the emerging issue of gambling addiction, no doubt. How extensive is sports betting on college campuses? The NCAA released survey results in May 2023, finding that 67 percent of college students bet on games, and that 41 percent of students bet on their own schools’ games.

History also offers a cautionary tale. Players on the City College of New York basketball team, then reigning national champions, and six other colleges and universities were caught up in a notorious point-shaving scandal in 1951. A recent betting scandal has involved allegations against 15 current and former athletes at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. According to a Des Moines television station, some placed bets on games in which they played. Some have pleaded guilty to underaged gambling; the legal age for gambling in Iowa is 21.

In response, federal and state lawmakers and regulators are taking action. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) has threatened legislation to regulate advertising on sports betting on or near college campuses. In March 2023, the senator sent a letter to athletic administrators at 66 major college athletic programs, requesting answers to five questions, including ones on gambling contracts and partnerships with casinos, sportsbooks, and gambling companies, and the use of partnership revenues. He requested written responses by the end of April. Responses have not yet been released.

The introduction of bills in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland—as well as regulatory actions in Ohio and New York that prohibit certain advertising, ban betting on in-state teams, or require full transparency on any contracts or partnerships between gambling companies and universities—suggests other states, awakening to newfound concerns, will follow suit.

NCAA Antitrust Exemption

Elected leaders are proud graduates of their alma maters, and many are strong supporters of those with Division I athletic programs. Nevertheless, coaching scandals at Northwestern University and Michigan State University and elsewhere, the large dollars involved in NIL compensation, the pending NLRB decisions, the courting of sports betting to attain more revenue, and skyrocketing coaches’ salaries force the question of how much longer big-time athletics can continue to sustain the amateur athletics model. The only hope for all who support the amateur model may be an antitrust exemption for the NCAA. The organization is pursuing an exemption, most recently during a January hearing on athletics before the House Energy and Commerce Committee where the NCAA’s Baker advocated for it. An antitrust exemption from Congress, however, does not appear feasible in the near term.

Questions for Boards

  • Has the board considered the implications related to compensating our student-athletes for their name, image, or likeness?
  • Is our university considering a financial relationship with an online gambling company? If so, has the board been engaged in discussions regarding, or been made fully aware of, any pending contract?

The AGB Perspective

Board members are fiduciaries first, and fans second. In keeping with fiduciary duty and recognizing that boards should delegate administrative responsibility for intercollegiate athletics to the institution’s chief executive officer, institutional governing boards are ultimately accountable for athletic policy at colleges and universities. Boards of institutions that choose to offer these enhanced educational benefits to athletes must accept responsibility for upholding the integrity of the athletics program and ensure that the program continues to advance the institution’s educational mission.