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NCAA Players’ Winning Streak, Off the Field

Leaders of the multibillion-dollar college sports industry, under increasing legal scrutiny over the rights of student-athletes, have begun rolling back some of the most contentious policies regarding amateurism.

Indiana University announced a bill of rights for athletes last month, promising free tuition for life rather than the customary one-year scholarship guarantee. Southern California said it would guarantee four-year scholarships. University presidents in the Big Ten and Pacific-12 Conferences wrote public letters advocating guaranteed four-year scholarships, improved medical coverage and more financial support for athletes.

Mark Emmert, NCAA President.
William B. Plowman | NBC | Getty Images
Mark Emmert, NCAA President.

In the most significant move yet, the N.C.A.A. decided last week not to ask athletes to sign a statement authorizing the N.C.A.A. and other groups to use their names and likenesses for promotional purposes. The change ended a much-criticized practice that pressured athletes to give the N.C.A.A. permission to profit from their popularity with no compensation.

"It would be silly to suggest this isn't a product of the overall environment of people looking more closely at the benefits for student-athletes," said Fred Glass, Indiana's athletic director.

These shifts are happening at a time of growing unrest in college sports over what critics say is exploitation of athletes. Several lawsuits are challenging the collegiate model, and some athletes have moved to unionize.

Read More O'Bannon v. NCAA: Trial over before it begins?

The changes may leave athletes better protected and more empowered — and the universities less vulnerable to future lawsuits — no matter how the courts rule on the lawsuits regarding the status of student-athletes.

"There are smart people running college sports, and they know the old arguments about education, welfare, future do not hold water anymore," said B. David Ridpath, an Ohio University business professor who has advocated changes in college sports. "They are trying to regain control of the narrative by doing what I feel are largely positive steps."

"They are up against the clock," he added.

Read More Players should get paid: Kentucky coach Calipari

The use of athletes' names, images and likenesses, without compensation, is at the center of a federal class-action suit against the N.C.A.A. that could have profound ramifications for college sports. In that case — known as the O'Bannon case, after the former U.C.L.A. basketball player Ed O'Bannon — former student-athletes have argued that the N.C.A.A.'s use of their images has violated antitrust law.

The O'Bannon trial concluded last month in federal court in Oakland, Calif.; the judge is expected to issue a decision before the end of the summer.

Kris Richardson, the N.C.A.A.'s director of academic and membership affairs, told university officials that this season, for the first time, athletes need not be asked to sign a statement regarding the use of their names and likenesses for promotional purposes. Richardson's email, first reported by USA Today, was confirmed by The New York Times.

Donald Remy, the N.C.A.A.'s chief legal officer, attributed the change to a desire to make the eligibility process more efficient. He said the recommendation had been discussed for more than a year.

"It had no eligibility ramifications," Remy said. "It was a bit confusing to folks over the years, and so it was something we clarified now."

Richardson and Remy said that the section of the agreement dealing with likenesses had never been mandatory, but the form published for last season told prospective athletes, "If you are an incoming freshman, you must complete and sign Parts I, II, III, IV, V and VII to participate in intercollegiate competition." The section in question was Part IV.

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Although the N.C.A.A. no longer asks prospective athletes to sign such a statement, individual conferences may still require it. The Big Ten has had athletes sign a name-and-image waiver, and last month the Atlantic Coast Conference told member universities it would circulate a name-and-likeness release form on a conference level for the first time.

The N.C.A.A. and its member universities have faced a barrage of legal challenges over the past year that have provoked a national debate about the rights of student-athletes.

In addition to the O'Bannon trial, the prominent New York antitrust and sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, whose previous cases include the lawsuit that established free agency in the N.F.L., filed a proposed class action in March accusing the N.C.A.A. and the so-called Big 5 conferences, which have many of the most valuable athletics departments, of unlawfully preventing athletes from receiving fair compensation. Committees in the House and the Senate have held hearings on the collegiate model's fairness and sustainability.

Also in March, a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board authorized a unionization drive among Northwestern football players. The director determined that under federal labor law, the players were university employees. The N.L.R.B. in Washington has agreed to hear an appeal.

Read More Why the Northwestern union vote may not mean much

The N.C.A.A., the Big 5 conferences and a few other universities have seemingly begun to retreat.

In April, weeks after the star point guard Shabazz Napier of Connecticut complained during the Final Four that there were "nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," the N.C.A.A. changed its rules to allow universities to provide unlimited meals to competing students. (The N.C.A.A. said the change had been in the works for some time.)

The N.C.A.A.'s president, Mark Emmert, testified this month before a Senate committee investigating student-athletes' well-being. While defending the current model generally, Emmert acknowledged several concerns expressed by the senators. He said he supported guaranteed four-year scholarships.

Last week, the N.C.A.A. released a revised governance proposal that, if approved by its board of directors in August, would make it easier for the Big 5 conferences — the A.C.C., the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Southeastern Conference — to make their own rules.

Those conferences have said that they would use the autonomy to give their student-athletes more benefits, including more money.

Even some individual universities have taken the initiative. Southern California announced last month that it would offer four-year packages to its scholarship athletes in football and men's and women's basketball.

"With all this talk that's out there on student-athlete welfare issues, everybody's taking a closer look at how they do things," said Tim Tessalone, a spokesman for U.S.C.'s athletics program.

Read More What a college athlete is worth on the open market

More changes can be expected if legal pressure continues.

"I don't think there's any question that none of this is going to go away soon," Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12, said at a news conference this week. "I expect to be in court most of the rest of my career."

—By Marc Tracy, The New York Times. Ben Strauss contributed reporting.

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