BEFORE CURT FLOOD unsuccessfully challenged baseball's reserve clause in 1970, before players finally won the right to become free agents in 1975, owners, along with many Hall of Famers, agreed that reforming the system would doom the game. Then-Braves executive Paul Richards referred to the idea of free agency as "the end of baseball as we know it."
But the world didn't collapse because Reggie Jackson switched teams, and it won't collapse if Mike Trout commands $400 million by 2021. Baseball today is an $8 billion industry, and no group has become wealthier than the owners. Free agency, forced on them by an outside arbitrator, has fueled that growth; big-ticket signings generate fan excitement, and player mobility drives competitive balance. Which is why most baseball historians agree that MLB's costliest mistake was not changing the system quickly enough, fighting to preserve a model that had run its course instead of recognizing that the old ways were untenable.
Now it's potentially the NCAA's turn to pay the price for refusing to build a new world order in step with a new reality. Moments after UConn won the national title, the NCAA launched a webpage for championship gear, celebrating the players' achievement but preventing them from seeing a dime of the profits. The optics of the moment were glaring. They also present NCAA president Mark Emmert with a choice: Be the visionary who creates a modern, honest vision of college athletics or mimic the 1970s-era MLB owners and then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn by claiming doomsday while raking in profits. If he chooses the latter, the NCAA faces a revolutionary moment akin to baseball's, in which the leaders, through lack of leadership, lose control of their game.
When -- not if -- the system changes, the NCAA's leaders must recognize that the sun will continue to rise, that the game will remain intact; most fans and players want it to. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and the other leaders of the players union movement are advocating for health care protections and to share in the billions they generate, not to disband the NCAA completely. It is a modest ask, at least in comparison to the more far-reaching possibilities -- just as the first-ever strike in MLB history in 1972 wasn't about free agency but merely pension benefits.
If the NCAA works with the players to establish a new model, fans would still identify with their school's teams. Because of the NBA's rules, the age limit would remain in place, keeping the best talents under the college wing for at least a year. The power of the NCAA brand would still be more culturally attractive to prep players than playing hoops overseas (and college football is still the only real pipeline to NFL football). Less skilled athletes, knowing they will need their education after graduation, would choose long-term guaranteed scholarship compensation over short-term dollars. This is a potential outcome that represents real change but hardly an existential threat to the current system; it'd be as much on the NCAA's terms as the players'.
Alternatively, by refusing to negotiate and compromise, the NCAA opens the door to an arbitrator forcing change upon it -- to legitimate collective bargaining that would radically alter everything about college sports. If athletes are employees, for example, they could challenge the entire concept of four-year eligibility and turn college athletics into a true minor league. Imagine a point guard playing 10 years for Billy Donovan, or players moving back and forth between the NBA and their alma maters depending on the competition and the calendar. Imagine Tim Tebow returning to the Gators. After all, an employee quarterback can work for a university as long as he is welcome, just like a professor -- or a coach.
The difference between those two futures comes down to leadership. Emmert can't act unilaterally, but he is the face of the NCAA, and by spending his time predicting Armageddon, he is forfeiting an opportunity to meet the challenge and drive compromise.
But it's still not too late. He just needs to ask himself how he'll want history to judge his actions: as the leader who brokered change or -- like baseball owners from the 1970s -- stood in its way.