NCAA Allows ‘Image and Likeness’ Compensation
Bowing to Immense political pressure to pay college athletes will dramatically change the game.
The governing body for major college athletics in the United States has reversed a fundamental principle of the system, allowing star athletes to get paid by outside sources. This will almost surely open the floodgates.
The Associated Press reports:
The NCAA took a major step Tuesday toward allowing college athletes to cash in on their fame, voting to permit them to “benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.”
The nation’s largest governing body for college sports and its member schools now must figure out how to allow athletes to profit — something they have fought against doing for years — while still maintaining rules regarding amateurism. The NCAA Board of Governors, meeting at Emory University in Atlanta, directed each of the NCAA’s three divisions to create the necessary new rules immediately and have them in place no later than January 2021.
This move was inevitable, as there has been enormous political pressure on the NCAA to relax rules requiring star athletes to be “amateurs” while coaches rake in millions, schools tens of millions, and college sports as as a whole billions. But the very reason the NCAA was created in the first place, well over a century ago, is that schools and boosters were making a mockery of the process in order to win—and that was in an era where only pride was at stake.
In theory, I’m in favor of allowing star players to get paid. Football and basketball, in particular, have huge fan bases and generate massive revenues. It’s hard to argue that the athletes—disproportionately African-Americans from less-than-wealthy families—should get nothing until and unless they make it to the pros.
But, first, the NCAA has in recent years approved payments for the “total cost” of schooling, meaning that athletes are in fact given monthly stipends beyond tuition, room, board, and books. And they’re provided essentially unlimited meals. That’s not a bad deal—almost any other kid on campus would gladly take it.
But, second, the potential for abuse is high. In theory, only a handful of athletes are sufficiently famous that they’d make any money at all from endorsements and the like. But boosters would quickly figure out how to compete for recruits—even in non-revenue sports—by funneling “image and likeliness” money to them. The third-string offensive lineman from schools with richer alumni bases will suddenly be getting lucrative endorsement deals.
Relatedly, this further skews the recruiting playing field. Traditional powers with established coaches and massive budgets already have a huge advantage. And a single mega-booster, like a Phil Knight (Oregon) or a T. Boone Pickens (Oklahoma State) can really turn a program’s fortunes around. Think of what Oregon would be able to do if Knight could simply promise any athlete on the football or basketball team a $100,000—or, hell, a $1,000,000—endorsement deal? Or, how about USC and UCLA taking advantage of their Hollywood connections?
The NCAA is aware of these challenges, of course.
“One of the most distinctive things about college sports is this whole recruitment process,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told the AP. “The whole notion of trying to maintain as fair a playing field as you can is really central to all this. And using sponsorship arrangements, in one way or another, as recruiting inducements is something everybody is deeply concerned about.”
Ackerman and Smith said the challenges lie in determining what regulations need to be set in place; what markets athletes should be allowed to access; what entities and individuals they should be permitted to work with; and whether the schools themselves could provide funds to athletes through licensing deals.
But it’s unclear whether the NCAA even has the power to set parameters to rein in these potential abuses.
The NCAA’s move came a month after California passed a law that would make it illegal for NCAA schools to prohibit college athletes from making money on endorsements, autograph signings and social media advertising, among other activities.
“California has made it clear that we won’t accept any arbitrary limitations on college athletes’ right to their name, image, and likeness,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner, who co-sponsored the bill, posted in Twitter.
The California law goes into effect in 2023. More than a dozen states have followed with similar legislation, some of which could be on the books as soon as next year.
“This is another attempt by the NCAA at stalling on this issue,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group.
The NCAA hasn’t done itself any favors by being so slow to make obvious concessions. While this was partly motivated by competitive fairness concerns as well as equity issues—can we pay athletes on revenue-producing teams like football but not pay those on costly programs like women’s lacrosse?—there was always the sense of hypocrisy in claiming “amateurism” while raking in hundreds of millions on television deals. And, yes, it’s particularly grating for schools to rake in money selling jerseys with a student-athlete’s name and number for $79 and giving the kid nothing in return. (Yes, they get the aforementioned scholarship-plus. But so does the kid whose jersey doesn’t sell.)
But critics undersell the potential for abuse:
It’s hard to say exactly how much athletes could fetch on an open market for their names. It could range from a few hundred dollars for creating personalized video and audio greetings for fans through companies such as Cameo, to thousands of dollars for doing television advertisements for local businesses.
This is assuming that the “free market” is based only on the value-added of using the student-athlete’s name and likeness. But, again, it’s inevitable that the value to a booster of getting the kid to play for their school’s team will also be a major factor. A five-star quarterback recruit may well generate a bidding war for his services.
Now, I suppose, one could argue that this is just the American Way. If someone is willing to pay that much to get a player on their team, why shouldn’t the player be able to benefit? That’s essentially what we do in other professional sports (although most have other strategies for promoting competitive balance, including salary caps and player drafts). But it would radically change the nature of college sports.