It was a tumultuous spring off the field for the NCAA, and the effect could change college lacrosse in substantial ways. The consensus to this point, however, is that there's still so much to be determined that it's impossible to project how lacrosse fans should ready themselves for the future.
How this future looks could hinge on the development of two major storylines that might reshape college athletics:
In late March, a National Labor Relations Board regional director decided that members of the Northwestern football team were, based on the nature of their work (playing a sport) and compensation (a scholarship), employees of the university. This allowed Wildcats player Kain Colter to work toward unionizing, eliciting a membership vote from his teammates while university officials appealed the decision to the NLRB. The vote was conducted in late April, the results of which wouldn't be known for weeks or months.
--In April, an ESPN.com story by Ivan Maisel about Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive shed light on an impending NCAA subdivision that would include the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference, Pacific-12, Big Ten and Big 12, offering the subdivision the chance to make its own set of rules and allowances for athletes. Among the considerations was instituting a "cost of attendance" stipend that would provide about an additional $2,000 to full-scholarship athletes, primarily football and basketball players.
It all adds up to a lot of unknowns for athletic directors and conference administrators primarily concerned with sports other than big-time football and basketball, including lacrosse.
"We're all paying close attention to [the labor and subdivision news] because it impacts what we do on a daily basis. I was in L.A. in April with 135 athletic directors, and it was all anybody was talking about." says Loyola Maryland AD Jim Paquette, whose athletic department is relatively rare in how large a priority men's and women's lacrosse is compared to other sports. "Among the old BCS schools, a lot of them who are flush with cash are getting lots of pressure to provide more to the student-athletes. The challenge is you've got 90 percent of the schools who don't have those resources."
Paquette's point addresses what many fans of so-called nonrevenue college sports fear may be the end to the familiar system: the haves separating from the have-nots, fundamentally changing who we'll be cheering for on Memorial Day weekend.
It's not an unfounded fear.
In a Reddit Q&A on the Colter case, University of New Hamphire law professor Michael McCann, who frequently weighs in on sports law for Sports Illustrated, noted that the decision on the case wouldn't come quickly; it could extend to 2017 if it's appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, he addressed the threat to other sports, saying: "I think it would also force some schools to dramatically reduce their sports programs (which I think is likely going to happen if Colter wins — I don't say that to signal opposition, but the reality is that if football players are employees, some schools won't employ them and they would be laid off, especially if Title IX commands a roughly equal number of women athletes are paid)."
Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel addressed the flaw in college sports' model, by which football and basketball essentially fund the remainder of an athletic department's teams.
"Why is it just assumed that elite, revenue-generating football and basketball players should automatically concede their market value to prop up smaller sports?" he wrote. "Why are all players the same when no school pays the football coach and the field hockey coach the same amount?"
Wetzel then quoted NCAA President Mark Emmert addressing how universities would adjust to a model of athlete-as-employee, saying, "Most universities don't have the resources to move to that kind of model, so they'll probably be playing Division III-style."
Wetzel then issued a prediction: "Exactly. That's where this is heading one day."
Does Paquette agree? "I've learned in this business not to ever say never, but I don't anticipate (a separation between former BCS schools and the rest of the NCAA)."
He points to why the NCAA came to be in the first place — as a nonprofit meant to facilitate the education of college students through athletics — and wonders: If the most profitable faction were to separate from the rest of the NCAA, would its model still receive all the legal and governmental protections and aids that allow the NCAA to function currently?
But again, with so much left undetermined, now's a time for discussion, patience and observation for lacrosse fans.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions out there," Paquette says. "It'll be interesting to see how it all goes down this summer."