Paying amateur athletes has for a long time been a high-voltage debate within college sports circles in the United States, as well as the Olympic movement. Ardent defenders of the purity of the game often face the harsh reality of the current landscape in a cut-throat business world.

A settlement reached Thursday by the National Collegiate Athletic Association shook US college sports to the core, as it currently sets the stage, after decades of social uproar and legal battles, to pave the way for schools to finally legally pay their student athletes.

The association, which was founded in 1906 and strictly enforced amateur status for students despite huge profits from ticket sales, merchandise revenue and national TV deals, decided to reach a deal with the so-called five power conferences.

"The five autonomy conferences and the NCAA agreeing to settlement terms is an important step in the continuing reform of college sports," a joint statement from NCAA president Charlie Baker and the commissioners of the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference said.

Besides pending federal anti-trust lawsuits, the deal should have far-reaching consequences and includes payments of more than $2.7 billion (€2.5 billion) in damages by the NCAA to former and current athletes over the past decade, ESPN reported,

“This settlement is also a road map for college sports leaders and Congress to ensure this uniquely American institution can continue to provide unmatched opportunity for millions of students,” the joint statement said. “All of Division I made today’s progress possible, and we all have work to do to implement the terms of the agreement as the legal process continues. We look forward to working with our various student-athlete leadership groups to write the next chapter of college sports.”

Many student athletes had already somewhat breached the enormous gap between what their play on the field generates for the schools’ economy off the field and what their predecessors were allowed to earn in the past, which was nothing, as per NCAA’s rules and regulations. Current players are allowed to ink endorsement deals that earn them millions of dollars before they set foot in the pros, as is the case with this year’s overall number one NFL Draft pick, Caleb Williams. As a five-star recruit by a big-time school like the University of Southern California, the multi-talented, charismatic quarterback has already made millions in sponsorships before throwing his first pass for the Chicago Bears.

Chicago Bears quarterback Caleb Williams signs autographs at NFL Draft. GETTY IMAGES
Chicago Bears quarterback Caleb Williams signs autographs at NFL Draft. GETTY IMAGES

The debate is also an ardent one within the Olympic movement, as just this year tensions rose when World Athletics’ boss, Sebastian Coe, announced that track & field medallists would earn prize winnings at the 2024 Games. The move strayed somewhat from the traditional, yet flawed, understanding that the Olympics are to be forever linked to amateurism. Coe endured pushback from national federations and the International Olympic Committee, among others, yet his decisions seem well-placed to set precedent in other sports as well.

The five US conferences are themselves an influential group of universities effectively acting as regional governing bodies, and the settlement is expected to have vast repercussions on the college sports world, as each school will be allowed (but not obligated) to spend up to a reported $21 million (€19 million) per year on their athletes. How it allocates that money and what specific sports programmes are benefited will depend exclusively on each university.

“Even though it was only because of the overwhelming legal pressure, the NCAA, conferences and schools are agreeing that college athletes should be paid,” former UCLA football Ramogi Huma told the Associated Press. “And there’s no going back from there. That’s truly groundbreaking.”

The pay-the-athletes movement has been a constant since college athletics started generating enormous cash-flow due to the rise of sports as a mainstream spectacle in American society and the increasing TV deals for juggernaut football and basketball teams, which even sparked conference realignment in recent years, much to the dismay of traditionalist fans.

The floodgates first opened some in 2021, when the NCAA finally allowed college athletes to capitalize financially from their "name, image or likeness" in so-called NIL deals, which stars like Williams have heavily cashed on. Legislation ensued, rules and sanctions for booster-financed perks loosened and fairer treatment for the spectacle’s main protagonists now seems underway.

“The settlement, though undesirable in many respects and promising only temporary stability, is necessary to avoid what would be the bankruptcy of college athletics,” revealed Notre Dame University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, AP reported.

Michael McCann, a legal analyst and sports reporter at Sportico, told NBC News that the case has two components that “move away from amateurism” — one that deals with how players are paid for the past loss of earnings, including money they could have made for name, image and likeness. “The going forward part is that colleges can opt in, conferences can opt in, as well, to pay players, to share revenue with them, to have direct pay, and that would be of course a radical from the traditions of college sports,” McCann explained. “Now the athletes, at least at some schools, will get a direct stake.”

Some may call it radical, others a fairer, long-overdue shake for student athletes who perform at the elite level and face elite level challenges and professional pressure at a young age. They would all agree on calling it a landmark agreement, a mighty shake of the college sports landscape with enormous repercussions.