When Will We See the First Millionaire College Athlete?

Sooner than you might think.

The biggest college sports programs in the nation make a lot of money for a lot of people. Coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA honchos, to name a few, have seven-figure salaries thanks largely to the labor of unpaid athletes. It’s the NCAA way of life and it seems immutable in the way that all cultures do and so few are. The Friday ruling in the O’Bannon v. NCAA case may have been the first skirmish of a revolution.

The judge in the case, which challenged the NCAA’s commercial use of player images, found that college athletes are entitled to some of that cash too – but not much. The court’s ruling said the NCAA couldn’t stop universities from paying players in exchange for using their images but it capped those earnings at $5,000 a year and said schools could defer the payments. That means an athlete who suits up for four years could receive a check for a cool $20,000 upon graduation. It’s more than the $0 athletes currently receive for their work but it’s not making any wide receivers rich. But it does signal that collegiate paydays could become a reality.

Here’s why: The O’Bannon ruling said the NCAA is violating antitrust laws as it relates to compensating players for the use of their image. Another case, filed by sports attorney Jerry Kessler, accesses the NCAA of violating those same laws to fix player compensation at the cost of a full scholarship. If the precedent of the O’Bannon case is used to decide the Kessler case, it’s possible that NCAA will no longer be able to prevent schools from paying players. As Sports Illustrated says, Kessler’s suit “seeks to destroy the organization’s amateurism model as fans know it.”

Let’s imagine for a moment that a judge one day decides Kessler’s suit in favor of the players, allowing schools to offer compensation for play. Given the number of athletes and what we can assume will be an extreme reluctance by schools to pay much, it’s hard to imagine anyone hitting the millionaire mark on salary alone.

What could conceivably get players to that magic number though is the ability to market themselves. Remember all the trouble Johnny Manziel got into for selling his autograph? Imagine if that were allowed. Now imagine how many people in College Station would have dropped a Benjamin for Manziel to sign their jorts.

That said, endorsements are the real potential cash cow. Last October, before he even played a game at Kansas, Andrew Wiggins was reportedly fielding offers from adidas and Nike in the $180 million range. Under current rules, Wiggins had to wait until last month to sign his multi-million dollar shoe deal. But given the NCAA v. O’Bannon ruling (and those likely to use it as precedent), it’s not crazy to think the next high school hoops phenom could be cashing checks from Nike between class and practice. The first millionaire college athlete certainly isn’t in college now, but he’s practicing his jumper in an elementary school gym somewhere. We look forward to seeing suit up for the University of Alabama (or Phoenix).

Photos by Mike Zarrilli / Getty Images