CU Buffs coaches react to name and likeness legislation

New California law paving way for NCAA upheaval

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado running backs coach Darian Hagan understands both sides of the NCAA name and likeness issue.

McKinley Wright knows exactly what the messages are, if not who precisely they are from, before he even opens them.

Inevitably, it is some organization sharing the same name — a Wright apparel company, for instance — that believes the Colorado point guard has…well, the right stuff to help promote their product. CU’s Wright knows better though. Even on those occasions when he thinks he might look pretty good in those Wright-adorned products, it’s always a definitive pass for the 2019 All-Pac-12 Conference first team selection.

Wright is destined to finish his CU basketball career among the Buffs’ career assists leaders. He hopes to lead the Buffs to memorable runs this season through the Pac-12 Conference and, possibly, even the NCAA Tournament. And he knows better than to jeopardize those goals by fattening his wallet, or even briefly satisfying his sweet tooth.

“You can’t even take a candy bar,” Wright said. “Some of us got that reputation because of who we are we could get a lot more than a candy bar, but it just sucks that we can’t take it. It is what it is. It’s college. We’re grateful to be here, thankful to be here. Happy to be in this position to play.”

Very soon, a student-athlete like Wright might not have to wage that internal debate about whether he or she should accept that proverbial candy bar. Earlier this week, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law that state’s “Fair Play to Play Act,” which allows student-athletes at California state schools to profit from name, image and likeness transactions beginning in 2023 in defiance of the NCAA’s longstanding opposition in the name of amateurism.

A similar bill is set to be on the table in Colorado in early 2020, and a number of other states are in line to follow suit. In May, CU athletic director Rick George was named to the “NCAA Working Group on State and Federal Legislation,” a committee tasked with assessing the feasibility of allowing student-athletes to profit through the use of their name, image, and likeness.

That group is expected to present its report to the NCAA later this month. The California legislature is a further example of how the public narrative has shifted on the matter. Predictably, administrators have whined against the California law — Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany declared “I really don’t see much difference, myself, between name, image and likeness payments by a corporate sponsor or pay-for-play,” at the league’s basketball media day, while the Pac-12 issued a statement professing “This legislation will lead to the professionalization of college sports and many unintended consequences.” Yet the coaches expected to be the most impacted by the potential change generally have issued more measured responses.

That includes those at Colorado.

“We live in interesting times in terms of what’s going on with that,” CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle said. “It’s just one of those situations where you have to be really, really careful about it. I think the NCAA is trying to do that. They’re recognizing there’s some changes they need to make. But how they make those, what’s allowed and what’s still not allowed…I think the one thing that I feel, and I think Rick is on the same page, the amateur model needs to stay intact. How we define amateurism, and what the NCAA allows, may be changing. And how that changes I think is really critical. If you open up the doors and go to the professional model, it’s a scary spot.”

CU running backs coach Darian Hagan sees both sides of the issue. As one of the standouts during the Buffs’ football glory days of the late 1980s and early 90s, he conceivably could have landed a number of endorsement deals and certainly could have made a little spare change from sales of his jersey. Yet Hagan has been a coach for decades now, and he realizes creating a new financial market won’t occur without a few headaches and abuses.

“I can’t go one way or the other on it. I’m right there in the middle,” Hagan said. “When I played, I probably would’ve been a hundred percent for it. Now that I’m not playing, I look at it from both sides. But I think they’ll get it right. I think there’s a way to get it right. I don’t think you overcompensate or muddy the waters. There’s equal pay and fair pay. I think Rick George and the committee will get it right. They’re people who have been around the game a long time and understand the economic piece.”

In Colorado, state senators Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, and Jeff Bridges, a Denver-area Democrat, are planning to introduce a bill similar to the California law in 2020. A number of other states are plotting similar action, and this week former Ohio State and NFL receiver Anthony Gonzalez, now a U.S. Representative in Ohio, said he is going to introduce a form of the “Fair Pay to Play Act” at the federal level.

The winds of change are gaining fervor around the NCAA, an institution typically intensely resistant to change. California’s law does not go into effect until 2023. Yet it may not take nearly that long for the landscape of CU athletics, and even the entire NCAA, to alter significantly.

“I believe the game and the whole structure is always evolving,” CU head football coach Mel Tucker said. “I think that’s just natural. You see it in all types of endeavors in business or whatever. We’ve got a lot of smart people on both sides of it trying to find out the best solutions while keeping the athletes’ best interests in mind. There’s always a solution. I’m fairly certain whatever the outcome is, it will be fair and it will be productive.”