College sports attorney Mit Winter. Via Mit Winter

College athletics have changed substantially in recent years. More changes are coming. The NCAA’s $2.8 billion settlement marks a seismic shift that would result in millions of dollars going directly to athletes as soon as the 2025 fall semester. The deal still needs to be approved by a federal judge, but the days of amateurism are nearing an end. 

To understand more about the potential ramifications, we caught up with legal expert Mit Winter. Winter, a former William & Mary basketball player, is a college athletics attorney. He spoke to us about what’s ahead for schools and student-athletes.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Awful Announcing: What will athletes gain in the settlement?

Mit Winter: “Well, really two things. No.1, there’s the back damages payment of around $2.8 billion that’s going to go to some former athletes and some current college athletes for the NIL compensation they were not able to receive prior to the NCAA changing its rules. That’s one component. Then there’s the forward-looking part. Schools will be able to directly pay NIL compensation to their athletes, which is a big change to the college athletics model that’s been around for 100 years or so. That line in the sand, schools couldn’t cross it. You’re not supposed to be paying your athletes beyond the cost of attendance and your athletic scholarships. That’s going to be changing, assuming the settlement does get approved by the court.”

What does the NCAA stand to gain?

“They get lawsuits that could potentially bankrupt them settled and concluded. The House settlement actually is settling three separate cases. It’s the House case, the Hubbard case, and the Carter case. The number has been thrown around as potential damages in all three of those cases combined is $20 billion. Possibly, if that happened, the NCAA could go bankrupt if it has to pay damages like that. They would have to pay them immediately instead of over time, which is part of the House settlement. They’re paying out over 10 years that $2.8 billion. That’s the biggest thing they get out of it. I think they’re also hoping that this is going to allow them to go to Congress and increase their chances of getting a federal law that gives NCAA college sports an antitrust exemption and a law that says college athletes cannot be employees.”

What’s the likelihood this settlement will be approved?

“That’s a good question. I would say more likely than not it gets approved, but I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. It has a novel component. They’re trying to automatically opt-in future college athletes to the terms of the settlement. If you’re a college athlete from 2016 to the present, you’re in the class. So unless you opt-out, the settlement terms apply to you, which is normal in antitrust class actions like this.

“But they’re trying to put in a mechanism where future college athletes, someone right now who’s in high school or grade school or middle school, would automatically be opted into the terms of the settlement, which would prevent them from bringing a future antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA. Because under the terms of the revenue sharing component of the settlement, it’s still going to have a cap on the amount that schools pay to their athletes of around $22 million per year. So, it’s still problematic from an antitrust situation.”

Are there ways schools can get around that cap?

“The cap on compensation is going to be money that’s being directly paid from a school to its athletes. Any third-party NIL compensation is not going to be included in the cap. So, let’s assume that if you’re at a Power Five school, all the schools are going to be hitting that $22 million cap. Then the next level of competition is going to be, ‘All right, how can we figure out a way to get our athletes the most third-party NIL money now?’ Whether that’s deals with businesses or through collectives as they do now, or some other ways, I think there’s still going to be competition to get your athletes the most compensation. It’s just going to be now through a third party if you’re bumping up against that cap.”

For fans, how will this affect their experience?

“I don’t think your experience of watching games on TV, going to games in person, following your teams is going to change that much. All that’s changing is schools paying the athletes. You might see some news stories about it, but it’s not going to change what’s happening out on the field at all. The NCAA thought it would reduce fan interest and fans would stop watching college sports if the athletes were receiving third-party NIL compensation, which turned out to be inaccurate. Interest in college sports is at an all-time high. Fans don’t care if the athletes are being paid.”

Could there be a potential benefit for the fan experience?

“If you’re not a fan of the ability for players to be switching teams a lot, it’s possible that by schools being able to directly pay athletes, they could sign them to multi-year contracts.

“(Colleges are) not going to be able to keep them at school if an athlete wants to leave. But the athlete would be either giving up some money or potentially having to pay a buyout to the school. Let’s say they signed an exclusive NIL rights agreement with the school for two years, and then they want to leave after one year. Maybe the agreement says to get your NIL rights back you have to pay some buyout fees. Something like that.”

Jim Trotter wrote that smaller D1 schools could drop to D2 because of the settlement. What are your thoughts?

“It’s possible if most of the other teams in your conference are paying pretty significant NIL compensation to the athletes, and you either can’t afford to do it, or your institution philosophically doesn’t want to operate its college athletics program that way.  I think you can see some schools potentially dropping down to D2, or you could see some schools that are in the FBS drop to the FCS. There could be all kinds of different options.”

And this settlement doesn’t address student-athletes being employees?

“Correct. The House settlement does nothing to stop college athletes from being employees in the future or stop the currently pending legal proceedings that are asking for college athletes to be declared employees. That’s still a possibility in the future. I think personally—I don’t know whether it’s three years or five years—some college athletes are going to be employees.”

How will that change things?

“I think the biggest difference would be from the athlete side. They are employees. They could unionize and collectively bargain and play more of a role in deciding what college athletes are going to look like specifically for them. They would gain more protections that employees have.”

What was your basketball career at William & Mary like?

“I was there from 1997 to 2001.  I played small forward. I had a pretty good career. I had a good time. My freshman year, we were pretty good. Other years after that, we were OK, kind of up and down. We beat Virginia Tech during my senior year at Virginia Tech. That was a fun one to win.”

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.