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Other voices: Time to pay college athletes?

Walk into any grocery store, and the magazine rack bursting with glossy covers tells time as well as any calendar: College football is just a short pass away.

The college game has evolved over decades into today’s faster, harder-hitting spectacular. Great piles of cash, much of it from television, has stripped away the amateur conceit at the highest levels for everyone except the players supposedly limited to tuition, room and board.

Soon enough, even that will change. Decide among yourselves whether stipends for football and men’s basketball players enhance college athletics or lead to their ruination. The questions of the moment don’t include whether we like it, only how soon, how much and who decides.

That’s the shorthand version of two pivotal NCAA decisions, one in an Oakland, California, courtroom and the other by the Division I Board of Directors.

In Oakland, a federal judge ruled for the plaintiffs in what has become known as the O’Bannon case, ordering NCAA members to pay football and men’s basketball players up to $5,000 per year for use of their names, images and likenesses.

Those payments could start in 2016, but by then, the NCAA could well be operating under new rules, if its full membership agrees to give new autonomy to members of the so-called power-five conferences. Those conferences, which include the Big 12, want to set their own rules, including remittances to certain athletes beyond scholarships.

Obviously, questions are beating answers, like Baylor running up the score on Directional State U in early September. Will these paydays be limited by sport? What about women’s athletes and Title IX? Is $5,000 per year the number? Should every athlete earn the same amount?

And, most important: Who rules, colleges or courts?

If and when the full NCAA membership gives the power-five conferences — the Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Pacific 10 and Southeastern — their autonomy, the jury is out. They include nearly every big-time football program, but not all of the major basketball schools.

They are a mix of public and private, huge and less so, with varying academic and athletic missions. For now, they are knit together by history and football programs competing at the highest level short of the NFL.

The O’Bannon ruling, named for former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, brings similar uncertainty. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken rejected the NCAA’s stated definition of amateurism but then capped annual payments for commercial use of names and likenesses at $5,000.

One theory goes that if the NCAA knew the amount would be so low, it might not have fought so hard. Still, NCAA President Mark Emmert says he will appeal.

So as you gather ’round the tailgate or fire up the big screen, remember that the product you love will look the same but its underpinnings are changing dramatically. We have crossed a line, for good or ill.

— The Dallas Morning News