When you get right down to it, what choice did the National Collegiate Athletic Association have?
For over 60 years, one issue has been paramount: College athletes should not, under any circumstance, be paid. That would make them employees, not students, the NCAA claimed. Pay was the crucial differentiator between college sports and professional sports. In a series of lawsuits over the past half dozen years, the NCAA even argued that lack of compensation was the secret sauce that made college sports special.
But you know what? More and more people no longer buy what the NCAA is selling. It isn’t just anti-NCAA crusaders such as Sonny Vaccaro, the former sports marketing executive, or Jay Bilas, the ex-Duke University basketball star and ESPN analyst, anymore. It has become such a popular issue that it has gained bipartisan political support in this polarized age.
California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, which prevents universities in the state from punishing athletes who are compensated for their name, image and likeness — a so-called NIL bill — was passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature. When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the act into law, he did it on the set of LeBron James’s barbershop show. “The jig’s up,” Newsom said.
Similar bills have been introduced in nearly a dozen other states, including such college sports hotbeds as Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Florida. At the federal level, a bill to allow college athletes to earn endorsement money, introduced by GOP Rep. Mark Walker has been cosponsored by a number Democrats. This movement is spreading like wildfire.
So yeah, what choice did the NCAA have?
I’ve been trying to imagine the meetings of the NCAA working group that was charged with figuring out a response to all this NIL legislation. One member of the group, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, was quoted just a month ago as saying that if the California law went into effect (it won’t happen until 2023), Ohio State would stop playing California teams.
Another member, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the California bill “will undermine the unique American collegiate model.”
Nonetheless, realizing that the tide had turned against them, the NCAA brass sucked it up, and agreed that they would finally allow college athletes to earn money on their names, images and likenesses. Apparently, the NCAA no longer believes that NIL payment will kill college sports as we know it.
When you read its press release, you realize the NCAA still hopes to control the process. It says it wants athletes “to be able to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” It is hard to know what that means since the “collegiate model” has always meant, “everybody gets paid except the players.”
The NCAA also insists that the priority for athletes must be education (ha!), that NIL payments won’t distort “fair and balanced competition,” and that boosters won’t be able to use money to induce athletes to “remain at, or transfer to a specific institution.” These are all worthy goals, though let’s be honest: At most big-time sports schools, football and basketball players have long been expected to put their sport ahead of their education. As for “fair and balanced competition,” come see me the next time Rutgers beats Ohio State in football.
If left to its own devices, the NCAA would probably encrust the new financial freedom granted to college athletes with so many nitpicky rules that they wouldn’t feel free at all. But the association is not going to be left to its own devices. Not this time.
“While their words are promising, they have used words in the past to deny equity and basic constitutional rights for student-athletes,” said Walker after the NCAA’s announcement. He said that he would continue to press on with a federal NIL bill. You can be sure that whatever rules and regulations Congress puts in place, they’ll be nothing compared to what the NCAA has in mind.
I’m sure the NCAA hopes to draw the line at name, image and likeness. But I think it’s more likely that this marks the beginning, not the end, of payments for players. For one thing, allowing NIL payments makes a mockery of everything the NCAA has been telling the courts. In a series of antitrust cases, it has argued that paying the players would bring about the ruination of college sports. It is now clear that even the NCAA doesn’t believe that.
For another, once some athletes begin to reap endorsement money, players without endorsement deals are going to want some form of compensation. The pressure to actually start paying them a salary will be enormous. When the NCAA starts to argue — as it surely will — that this will lead to the ruination of college sports, people will roll their eyes. Legislators will file bills to pay the players. Fans will rally around the issue.
And the NCAA, once again, will have no choice but to capitulate. You can only cry wolf so many times.