Charlie Baker's Project D-I proposal 'stuck in neutral' amid litigious quagmire

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell04/17/24


Spring Transfer Portal Update: Wednesday, April 17, 2024

When the NCAA Division I Council meets Wednesday and Thursday to weigh expanding how schools can operate in the NIL space, the proposals in play reflect changes on the margins.

The biggest takeaway is what will not be discussed: Elements of NCAA President Charlie Baker’s Project D-I reform proposal that was unveiled in large headlines in December.

During January’s NCAA Convention, the Division I Board of Directors charged the D-I Council with “developing recommendations for a framework” that would address the key elements included in Baker’s forward-thinking plan.

So, what happened?

Three months later – amid unprecedented industry disruption and a growing mountain of legal threats – elements of Project D-I have been assigned to various committees within the NCAA’s multilayered structure. They have not yet come back to the Council, a source familiar with the meetings told On3.

Two of the most significant aspects of Baker’s proposal would empower schools to strike NIL deals with athletes and enable schools for the first time to pay athletes directly through a trust fund.

“All legislative action is stuck in neutral with all the judicial and legal action, including the AGs,” another prominent source told On3 on Tuesday. “Pass something in October, and if a school does not like the outcome or if it goes against them, they get the state AG involved. Brutal way to manage the NCAA and try to create positive change.”

Lawyers using NCAA proposal to bolster case

In the meantime, the NCAA and power conferences face a potential existential financial threat – a possible $4.2 billion bill – in the landmark House antitrust case. Earlier this month, the plaintiffs’ lawyers seized on the opportunity to use Baker’s own reform proposal to bolster their arguments in the case.

In court documents, the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote that the defendants cannot dispute that Baker’s proposal to permit direct NIL payments and allow schools to pay athletes “would be a less restrictive alternative that President Baker himself has declared would be good for college sports and improve competitive balance.

“This pronouncement by President Baker is an admission by the NCAA that, by itself, establishes the existence of less restrictive alternatives.”

Jim Cavale of told On3 it is understandable that NCAA leaders are choosing to pump the brakes on Baker’s proposal right now, thinking, “We can’t go too far down that road yet until we settle this [House] case – the proposal is already being used against us.”

Cavale added that the proposal already has accomplished its purpose, which was to start an industry-wide conversation.

Revenue-sharing model viewed as inevitability

The specific NIL proposal the Council will in fact consider this week would allow schools to provide “assistance and services” to their athletes as they pursue NIL deals, according to meeting materials. That includes schools identifying NIL opportunities for athletes and being permitted to “facilitate deals” with third parties.

Also, of note the next two days: The Council is weighing whether to remove the year in residency requirement for multiple transfers and instead basing their eligibility to compete on academic standards, the source familiar with the meetings said.

Looking broadly, Cavale said a revenue-sharing model is coming to college sports. Questions include what percentage of gross revenue will be shared with players; which players is it shared with; and if it’s only shared with athletes from revenue-producing sports, how do you reconcile Title IX compliance?

“Those questions should not be conditional around whether people believe revenue sharing will happen or not,” Cavale said. “Those are the questions that will have to be figured out in the negotiated deal of the revenue-sharing agreement, or, if it were done through employment and collective bargaining, the collective bargaining agreement.”

Baker’s proposal was hailed as a notable step toward a new financial model in college sports, even though many stakeholders said it did not go far enough.

But as the machinations in the House case continue to move toward a trial date in January – or a settlement – the Baker proposal, hailed as bold and progressive a few short months ago, is now stuck in neutral.