The O’Bannon decision made a significant change to one of the philosophical pillars of intercollegiate athletics in allowing for greater compensation for student athletes. At the same time, the court took only an incremental step in the direction of pay for college athletes: The decision was limited to football and men’s basketball players—as opposed to non-revenue-generating sports—and it set a yearly cap of $5,000 for each of these athletes. However, the court left open the possibility for—indeed, it almost seemed to invite—future challenges to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s restrictions on student-athlete compensation. In this regard, the court’s incremental step in college athlete pay may be a harbinger of more dramatic and structural changes to come in the college athletic system. While this Essay does not take a normative position on the legal or economic justifications for such a possible change in intercollegiate athletics, it does seek to describe some of the potential unintended consequences of a free(r) marketplace for student-athlete services. In particular, this Essay analyzes the possible implications and impact on Title IX, as well as college athletic opportunities and values more generally. In doing so, this Essay attempts to explain why the court’s more cautious approach may be needed going forward to balance the varied interest in the college athletic system.
January 12, 2015