It arrived somewhat as a shock, the announcement this past week that the NCAA plans to convene a working group to analyze the possibility of allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness.
This is but a first step, a small one that hardly portends a seismic shift in the so-called amateurism model the NCAA clings to so fervently, even while television packages flood universities with millions of dollars and coaches like Clemson football leader Dabo Swinney can ink contract extensions worth north of $90 million that make the term “amateurism” laughable.
The working group, which will include Colorado athletic director Rick George, could very well turn out to be much ado about nothing. Yet the simple fact the NCAA is willing to publicly take a look into the matter counts as a grand concession.
It’s one that’s long overdue.
Given the billion-dollar economy produced by major college football and men’s basketball, the idea the athletes at the center of those brightly-lit stages can’t indulge on even a small piece of that pie is as inane as it is antiquated. An enterprising student at CU can produce a T-shirt with, for example, a catchy phrase and the likeness of a popular player, be it quarterback Steven Montez or basketball forward Evan Battey, and as long as they are conscientious enough to avoid trademark infringements, that student can keep him or herself flush with beer money as much as they want. Montez and Battey have no such freedom.
While George did not return a call this past week seeking comment on his part in the burgeoning committee, CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle was willing to weigh in on the matter.
“I certainly understand both sides of the equation,” Boyle said. “I think it’s going to be interesting how it all plays out. What my personal beliefs are, at the end of the day they’re kind of inconsequential. Rick and I had some talks about it in passing, and I’m sure the committee will talk about unintended consequences. If they move forward with something like this, you just want to be really careful that a can of worms is not opened that can’t ever be closed.
“You think about recruiting advantages and all the things going on in college basketball, and now you’re going to throw every other sport in that mix as well. It’s a complex issue, and not one I’m an expert on. I’m sure the committee and Rick will be very, very careful with the decisions that they make.”
From this corner, those potential unintended consequences, as well as the format any potential payments might take (Straight pay? Deposits into a fund available only after the playing days are done?), are the biggest questions facing George and this new committee. The NCAA was clear the committee will deal only with name and likeness issues instead of employee-like payments, including in its release this week that “the group will not consider any concepts that could be construed as payment for participation in college sports.” At this stage, that’s a reasonable stance. While the clamor for paying student-athletes has gained traction and certainly is an issue that warrants its own committee at some point, it is equally shortsighted to completely dismiss free tuition, room and board, and apparel/gear as an inconsequential part of the equation.
The name and likeness issue is a different beast, one that has been simmering since former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon successfully sued the NCAA and EA Sports for using players’ likenesses in video games without compensation. The spirit of the rule is from another age, when coaches feared the friendly booster who happened to own an auto dealership could provide extra enticement to potential recruits with a sweet new ride.
Certainly that danger still exists, but it’s a different world. A few years ago a backup kicker at Central Florida, Donald De La Haye, opted to forgo his scholarship rather than his profitable YouTube channel. Student-athletes have the ability to be entrepreneurial without necessarily taking their eyes off their mobile devices. Sure, that auto dealer-booster in Alabama might be able to throw a few more options at potential football recruits. But guess what? Alabama already gets the nation’s top football recruits as a matter of routine. And these off-the-field opportunities will be available everywhere.
Of course, there will be socio-economic disparities. The name and likeness opportunities in, say, Los Angeles, will be more expansive, and likely more lucrative, than those in Boulder. But if promoting one’s name and likeness offers young men and women a chance to explore real-world business opportunities, then make certain those ventures are real-world in every aspect. Want to give a football player a brand new $30,000 car to be the face of your dealership? Fine. The guess here is more than a few teenagers or twenty-somethings will find such deals a little less palatable when the tax bill is due for that car compensation.
In the event the committee eventually recommends loosening name and likeness restrictions, there will be no perfect system. The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots will remain. Big money will talk the loudest, just as it does now in the universities’ facility wars and battles for television revenue. Players like De La Haye and former Buff Jeremy Bloom, whose football career was terminated after two seasons because the NCAA somehow linked his endorsements as an Olympic-level skier to some sort of competitive advantage for CU, should be celebrated as ambassadors of the game and not dismissed with a condescending “Tsk, tsk,” from people like NCAA president Mark Emmert, who makes more than $2 million annually to enforce these nonsensical rules.
Let the kids play. Let them make profitable YouTube videos and the occasional commercial as well in what could be viewed as a compromise to straight employee-like compensation. It’s past time. Hopefully George and the new committee eventually reach the same conclusion.