***After the writing of this article the NCAA board of governor’s unanimously voted to approve the ability of college athletes to benefit from their likeness “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model”. Whatever that means. They also directed their three divisions to “consider updates to relevant bylaws and policies” while keeping in mind “the distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities.” Again, whatever that means.***
Today in Atlanta the NCAA will meet to discuss the possibility of college athletes (I’m gonna stop using the term “student-athlete” since it’s made up language used to prevent players from being allowed to receive worker’s compensation benefits.) being able to profit off of their likeness. This comes largely in response to the recent passage by California, and rumblings in at least 12 other states, of a law that allows college athletes to receive compensation for their likeness. If you want to go back even further, you can trace the origins of this to the demise of the much beloved NCAA basketball and football video games following the O’Bannon settlement. As a quick refresher on that case former NCAA Basketball player, and National Champion, Ed O’Bannon saw his friend’s son playing an NCAA video game that allowed the player to play as Mr. O’Bannon and was shocked to learn that while the game sold for $60 he earned $0 from the millions that were sold across various consoles. The NCAA settled that case to the tune of $20 million and EA Sports settled a similar lawsuit for around $40 million. Given the size of the class it’s hard to believe that O’Bannon and others got much money out of it but it sure was fun to see the NCAA and EA Sports lose one. Sure, we lost the greatness of the NCAA games but that’s okay because I can still pop in NCAA ’14 and have Purdue win the BCS yet again! They can never truly take that away from me.
The California law which was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom allows college athletes to hire agents and make money from endorsements all while maintaining their eligibility to continue playing in college. Under the current system if an athlete does either of those things they will have lost their eligibility and find themselves in some sort of limbo where their only options could be the CFL or an abysmal salary with the XFL. The school that allows those violations to take place will likely get a slap on the wrist and the coach and AD will continue to make millions. The California law doesn’t take effect until 2023 but it obviously put the fear of God in the NCAA as they allegedly began discussing a plan to allow similar payments to athletes approximately five months ago with a report and discussion due today in Atlanta.
Should the California law go into effect, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, the NCAA absolutely must respond. There is no way that they can allow a two-tiered system and maintain fairness throughout their respective leagues. If you’re a high major recruit in the Pacific Northwest area and you’re offered scholarships at Oregon or Cal and Cal can more or less guarantee you a few extra thousand dollars all on the up and up it just makes sense to choose Cal especially if you’re in need of the financial assistance due to your personal circumstances. That leaves teams like Oregon and Purdue to fight against the moneyed interests of other states and even particular schools.
One of the questions I have about the California law is will the NCAA follow the guidelines they set out and allow athletes that sign agents to continue to compete or will they simply say that any player receiving any funds or signing with an agent will be ineligible? That’s certainly one direction they could go but I can’t imagine that’s the sort of PR fight they want to have. Another avenue they could explore is a lawsuit which I believe the NCAA would find themselves victorious. Their argument would likely be that no one is FORCED to join the NCAA and that this is a voluntary group of like-minded institutions who agree to follow the rules to compete. Of course, the argument from California member schools would be that the NCAA is clearly a monopoly and in order to compete at the level the athletes expect they have to join the NCAA. They are both coherent arguments but if you force me to choose right now I’d say the NCAA would be on stronger ground as much as that pains me to say. However, if initial reports of their argument are true it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The NCAA claims that the California law is unconstitutional but points to no article, section, clause, sentence, or even punctuation within the United States Constitution in making this argument. It seems to amount to, “I don’t like this law so it’s unconstitutional.” Sort of like how Michael Scott declared Bankruptcy by simply declaring it that’s not how this works.
As this situation unfolds I can already hear the pro NCAA arguments in the comments that “these kids already get paid enough, it’s called a free education, plus they get a stipend now! Greedy kids don’t know how good they’ve got it!” And yes, some of that is true. While current stipend amount per sport and per school varies (and can be a bit difficult to find) I was able to find some discussion of the stipend at ACC schools from last year. According to this article an in state offensive lineman at NC State earned a stipend of $2,676 per year. Further reading found a WR at North Texas received a stipend of $3,136 for the 2017 season. You might look at those numbers and think that’s a lot of money but then ask yourself if you could handle living off that for an entire year. You read stories all the time about athletes not having enough food, going to bed hungry, not being able to provide much for themselves and this money certainly helps but it isn’t the end all be all.
In addition, while yes, it’s true that these players are going to (hopefully) walk out of their respective schools with zero student loan debt, a dream I’m currently living (humblebrag), are they really putting themselves in a position to succeed post-college? You hear and read stories about players being discouraged by their coaches or various members of their athletic departments from pursuing the major they want because it would make competing on the team extremely difficult. Too often we force these athletes into general studies programs or something with a vacuous and non-sensical title in order to make sure they stay academically eligible. Ultimately, that’s the one thing a lot of these coaches and colleges care about; making sure the product on the field/court stays up to standards. There’s big money at stake so I don’t blame them, but do we really think that the majority of these coaches are looking out for their player’s best interest when the coach may have millions on the line for themselves? I’m a cock-eyed optimist but even I see the world as it is not as I wish it to be.
Finally, some of these athletes don’t even want to go to college but simply go because it’s the only way to be able to step into the NBA or the NFL (no matter how low the percentage of players who go pro is). As loathe as I am to highlight something LeBron James said I do have to give him credit for saying recently that he would’ve loved to have gone to college but his family, specifically his mom, needed the money he could earn in the NBA. Can you blame him? I know I can’t and I can generally find a way to blame LeBron for anything. I had no such issue in my life. My family did well enough to send me to college without a care about money in my head. However, if what I really needed was to help my family earn a living I don’t think going to college for four years while not being able to work or earn money off my likeness would be a good deal. We often look at these situations from our own points of view, but I’d encourage you to read those linked articles and really look at the viewpoint of those who didn’t have the life you or I had. Like Same Cooke said ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and for the NCAA it looks like it’s coming fast. Time to adapt or get out of the way.