In recent years, the NCAA has begun the laborious task of deregulating non-athletics aid. All federal- and state-funded financial aid, both need- and merit-based, is now exempt from team financial aid limits. Institutional financial aid is still more limited. Except for merit-based aid awarded to athletes that hit certain academic benchmarks, non-athletics aid from the school counts against team limits when mixed with athletic scholarship dollars.
But the NCAA is once again considering changing that. The idea of counting only athletic scholarships against team limits comes up every couple of years. It generally does not go far for two reasons: some schools have a lot more financial aid than others and schools fear their competitors pressuring the financial aid office into awarding more money to athletes.
If the Fisher case leads to limits on considering race in admissions and thus big increases in financial aid, and the NCAA succeeds in eliminating rules that limit the use of non-athletics aid in recruiting, it would mean big changes for equivalency sports. Where that aid goes, toward need- or merit-based programs would dictate who coaches focus their recruiting on. But unless tuition itself comes down, the middle-class student with median grades and test scores will be the most expensive, and thus least desirable recruit (all else being equal).
Changes could impact even the revenue sports, if the NCAA’s draconian limits are lifted. If there is enough financial aid available to make school affordable or even match a full grant-in-aid, more prospects may opt to be walk-ons at the school of their choice, rather than picking from the schools willing to offer them a scholarship. The odds of this happening are even better in basketball for players who are virtually guaranteed to be one-and-done. They could cover the gap with student loans that would be paid off immediately after joining the professional ranks.
There are a lot of steps needed to get from the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision to a shift in the balance of power in a sport. But the possibility exists for a big enough shock to the system that it presents an opportunity for programs smart enough to recognize the change and take the initiative. And if programs end up targeting more financial needy athletes or better students amongst the pool of prospective student-athletes, that brings them a little closer to the mission of the university.