Greg Rachac

BILLINGS (KPAX) Last week, the NCAA approved a nearly $3 billion settlement of an antitrust lawsuit that has been filed against the governing body of roughly 500,000 collegiate student-athletes across the country.

According to the Associated Press and various reports, the House v. NCAA outcome could require a payout of $2.77 billion "to college athletes who were denied by now-defunct rules the ability to earn endorsement and sponsorship deals dating to 2016."

The case is one of three antitrust lawsuits the NCAA faces and could result in a revenue-sharing model that would place the burden of paying athletes on the colleges and universities themselves, a dollar amount that could reach as high as $20 million annually.

What's key, though, is that up to 60% of the settlements could be paid for by the collection of smaller-budget colleges and universities — such as Montana and Montana State — who were not named in the lawsuit.

It's the latest in the never-ending cycle of potentially sweeping changes afoot in college athletics and has consequences for all NCAA member schools.

Last Wednesday, Montana athletic director Kent Haslam talked with MTN Sports during the Grizzlies' annual spring tour stop in Billings to discuss the antitrust settlements and how they might affect smaller-budget athletic departments, revenue sharing, how college sports arrived at this juncture, and how FCS football fits in the grand scheme of a vast NCAA transformation.

MTN: It seems the smaller colleges and non-FBS schools are picking up a large share of the tab for these antitrust settlements. How does this affect the University of Montana and athletic departments in the Big Sky Conference?

Haslam: "The early numbers show us losing roughly $200,000 in our distributions from the NCAA, and that's significant for us. That's got to be made up through ticket sales, through donations, though cost-cutting. So it's real and it's hitting everybody and it's certainly frustrating.

"I couldn't even answer and tell you how it all happened because none of us knows how it happened. We weren't consulted. We weren't asked, and I understand that, I guess. The line in big-time college athletics is clearly drawn. But I've always contended that the SEC needs football healthy in Missoula, Montana, to thrive, as well. And so sports needs to be healthy across the country for everybody to be healthy.

"I will add to that: We've got to get some resolution. We've got to get some direction. We've got to have some federal help. We've got to have things where the student-athletes are declared as students where they're not employees, we've got to get some antitrust safe harbor where we can set some guardrails and some boundaries and if this House settlement leads towards that, then I'm all for that. It's just unfortunate that the pain to get there impacts those who really don't benefit at all from it."

MTN: When you say guardrails, are you talking about caps on how much an athlete can make and the ability to keep money out of recruiting?

Haslam: "Yeah. Keeping the money out of recruiting, more transparency in the NIL space, certainly setting some limits around the max that can be paid or how it's paid.

"I'm absolutely a proponent of student-athletes generating revenue from their name, image and likeness. That's got to be done. What's been lost in this entire thing is the value of the education that they get as well."

The Griz take the field. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)
The Griz take the field. (WIlliam Munoz/Missoula Current)

MTN: But not at the University of Montana, right? By definition, student-athletes at the University of Montana are still exactly that as opposed to, say, football players at Alabama.

Haslam: "Yes, absolutely. I think what has crept in are the collectives and the donor-pooling of money and all those things. In my mind, the use of your name, image and likeness is a student-athlete's face on a billboard encouraging someone to buy their gas from a certain gas station. That's what I think of with name, image and likeness, and letting the market drive what that is.

"Now it's just turned into how much money can we pull together and what can we pay, and there's no transparency. So you don't really know if that money is really being paid, or are handlers just getting people to bid each other up? That's the part that's probably the most distressing.

"But I'm all for student-athletes generating revenue. They should be allowed to do that. It was way too restrictive a decade ago. The rules were a joke, to be honest. And so loosening those rules up is the right thing to do, but keeping in perspective that they're still students and keeping value on the education and the scholarship and all those other things that we do to support them I think can't get lost."

MTN: Because you still want athletics to be connected to the university and to higher ed.

Haslam: "Absolutely. The second that goes away it becomes minor league sports. And we've already got those."

MTN: Is all of this worrisome to you?

Haslam: "It's worrisome for me that we run faster than we've got strength. And we're in a business where you mix competition and you mix money and you mix egos, and it makes kind of a funny milkshake. And so navigating that already is difficult. So it's worrisome that we start to do things that are out of character, out of what our core mission is, and we lose sight of really what we are, what we represent.

"Things will change and college athletics, really when you think about, are in turmoil all the time. It's always changing, but I don't want to lose what makes us special at the University of Montana and in a state like Montana where we don't compete against professional sports. We have a great rivalry. We matter to the people of this state. We matter to the people in this region. And if it turns into where you just lose all connection to those people and that passion that drives them, that's what would be unfortunate to lose. And that's what I get worried about."

MTN: These antitrust cases are essentially about former players and athletes that did not have the opportunity to generate revenue suing the NCAA for ...

Haslam: "For back pay. Suing the NCAA and the big schools that gathered so much of that revenue. I've said all along, we're happy to profit share because profit share is 0-0. So, I mean, you run a broad-based athletic department and it is what it is. Our football ticket revenue supports our tennis programs. That's just how it is. So if we ran just a football program it'd be a very different approach, but we don't. We run a 15-sport athletic department. So profit sharing from our level, there's really no profit to share."

MTN: How many student-athletes at the University of Montana have NIL deals?

Haslam: "I don't know off the top of my head. Our entire soccer program has an NIL program for all of them. I would say there's in total, probably 40 or so that are gaining some kind of revenue off of name, image and likeness. And some are going be a couple hundred bucks and some are more significant.

"But there's certainly great opportunities at Montana and we're in a state where student-athletes matter and people recognize them, and so having them endorse your product is not a bad idea. It's not a not a bad thing."

MTN: We're in this position now because of how big of a business college sports became. Amateurism, I don't think, was ever intended to become what it's become, a billion-dollar industry. Looking back, is this regrettable?

Haslam: "I don't think you can stop it. Can't stop money. Can't stop revenue. Can't stop universities from trying to generate revenue. And we're somewhat to blame. 'We' being the universities in general. There's no doubt about it. We didn't make changes when changes needed to be made. And you can't operate in this enterprise like you operated in 1985. It's just different with television revenue and coaches' pay and all those things.


"Certainly, when you're announcing billion-dollar television deals it's going to raise people's antennas and wondering where all that money is going. And so higher ed needed to change. Higher-ed athletics needed to change and probably was a little too stubborn leadership-wise, and so we are where we're at now. I don't think you could have stopped it. I don't think you could have stopped the machine. This is college athletics. It's always been that way. The numbers have just gotten larger."

MTN: I'd even say that fans and media are to blame, also.

Haslam: "You can go all the way back to the days when there were three stations on TV and that was it. Right now, there's TV and streaming and they're all clamoring. Live sports is extremely attractive programming. It was inevitable. I don't think you could have stopped it. So I don't know if 'regrettable' is the right word. If we could go back to the 'good old days,' ... I don't know if I'd go back to those days either."

MTN: That's because student-athletes were driving the revenue but seeing none of the financial benefit. Were they being used?

Haslam: "In a lot of ways they were. The intention, though, still is connection to the university — an opportunity to gain an education, to play a sport, to use that talent to give you a chance to pay for school, make lifelong friends, have experiences that teach you leadership. And that's one thing that I am really proud of at this level. And at the University of Montana I think that's really still there. It really is."

MTN: You've said before that there's a place for FCS football in all of this. But with the latest developments, where do you see the FCS in five to 10 years?

Haslam: "I can't even look ahead five or 10 minutes. I think football is still viable at all schools that want to play it. Now how that gets parsed out, I think we're moving more and more toward large super-conferences. Those that have the largest amount of money. It's where we fit after that shakeout. We want to make sure we're competing at the highest level that we can, and so whether that's FCS or whether that becomes three different tiers within Division I, I don't know.

"Where the FCS fits, I think our model is pretty good. I think it's really good. With 63 scholarships you can control the costs more. It's a great form of football that matters to a lot of people. It's where that fits. But in many ways I feel like we just need a decision to be made by the larger schools, the larger-budget schools, so that the rest of us can get on with how do we fit into all this.

"I think football needs to be governed in and of itself, and in many ways it already is because the big schools' championship is governed by the College Football Playoff. Let football become its thing. Have different divisions. And then let all those other sports continue to thrive and put them in conferences that make more sense that are geographically associated with each other. Let Oregon football go from Eugene to Rutgers, but let, you know, Oregon volleyball still play Oregon State volleyball."

"I'm an FCS athletic director in Montana. Speaking for myself, I would like to see a resolution in football at the highest level so that the rest of us can get on with doing what we need to do."

MTN: Has the conversation ever come up at the University of Montana about the future of FCS football and what it could look like?

Haslam: "Oh yeah. We talk about it all the time. And that's the whole thing: What does moving up mean? That's the thing everyone keeps asking me. 'Are you going to move up? Are you going to move up?' And I don't know what moving up means. All I know what moving up means now is, I guess, would be a step into the Mountain West Conference if they were to have us. We'd pay a large fee. But in a year, two years, three years, moving up might be a completely different conversation.

"What we talk about is — and we've got to have this from the highest levels — it's got to be the Board of Regents, it's got to be the state government deciding where we want to fit in college athletics if it morphs and if it changes, and we have those conversations all the time. We want to make sure we're in a position where we can continue to compete against institutions that look like us, that invest similarly to us and mean as much as we mean to the state of Montana.

"The moving up question gets asked to me all the time. And generally, that's how I answer it. No. Under the current context of moving up, we have no plans of moving up."