College players may make money off their fame, NCAA panel recommends

By Alan Blinder

A powerful group of college sports leaders recommended earlier this week that student-athletes be allowed for the first time to earn money from autograph signings, personal appearances, endorsements and their social media platforms, which would be a groundbreaking shift that could see players earn millions of dollars.

The policy, put forward by an NCAA committee, comes as the organization faces demands to move away from its long-standing position that athletes should, at most, be allowed to receive scholarships and stipends for some living costs.

A final decision by the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors, which largely includes university chancellors and presidents, is expected today. But approval is widely anticipated, and the new approach would go into effect Thursday.

Much of the immediate pressure is coming from eight states, which starting Thursday will give athletes the opportunity to earn money off their fame, no matter what the NCAA does. Last week, a Supreme Court ruling left the NCAA more vulnerable to antitrust cases brought in connection to athletes’ payments.

Some athletes have already begun making plans to cash in on their renown. Jordan Bohannon, a men’s basketball player at the University of Iowa, has announced plans for an apparel line that will debut Thursday, and University of Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, Graham Mertz, posted a video with a personal logo.

Most athletes are expected to earn modest sums, if anything at all. But the highest-profile players — the likely professional stars of the future — could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars before they join the big leagues. The loosened rules are also expected to increase financial opportunities for women, who enjoy loyal audiences as college athletes but typically make much less money than men if they turn professional.

Some industry experts expect the most prominent players to charge $1,000 or more an hour for endorsement work or appearances. Many athletes’ value will be closely connected to their online presences; Paige Bueckers, a women’s basketball star at Connecticut, has more than 829,000 followers on Instagram, for instance, while Spencer Rattler, a quarterback at Oklahoma, has more than 370,000.

The proposed rules were recommended Monday by an NCAA panel called the Division I Council, a group that includes conference commissioners and athletic directors. Under the suggested guidance, students nationwide will generally not face NCAA repercussions, such as a loss of eligibility for athletics, for profiting off their names, images or likenesses. Schools in many states are expected to set policies around matters such as whether students may wear a university’s logo in an advertisement.

As in the past, universities will not be allowed to pay salaries to players, and athletes will not be permitted to accept money from anyone in exchange for enrolling at a particular school.

The proposed policy is intended as a temporary fix until permanent rules are written or Congress intervenes. It would apply only to universities in Division I, which has more than 170,000 student-athletes and features the richest and most famous leagues in college sports, including the Power Five: the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern conferences. Officials in Divisions II and III, which together include about 750 schools and more than 320,000 players, are expected to vote on similar plans this week.

“It’s a recognition that we have to adjust our business practices as it relates to student-athletes,” Richard Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since 1988, said of the approach.

NCAA leaders, he said, were “in a position where they had to build a policy that allowed us to start reacting to the reality, but recognizing that there’s a lot to be learned over the next months and we’ll need to adjust as it goes along.”

In October, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which is separate from the NCAA and includes about 77,000 student-athletes at mostly smaller schools, voted to let players earn money for public appearances and endorsements.

Leaders of the NCAA insisted for months that they were eager to move forward with new guidelines to allow players greater economic opportunities. And while it is true that many leading figures in athletics have urged the 115-year-old association to loosen its long-standing restrictions, the college sports industry is acting now largely because it has very little choice.

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas all have laws or executive orders coming into effect Thursday that will allow college athletes to earn money. More than a dozen other states have passed similar measures with later effective dates. But Congress, in a setback to the NCAA, has not reached an agreement to override the state statutes and offer a national standard in federal law.

Although many administrators still hope that the federal government will eventually act, an array of state laws without any kind of national policy in place threatened to create advantages for some teams over others. Schools in states with legal guarantees that students could potentially earn money, the reasoning went, would be better positioned to recruit prospective players, tilting the greatest future talents toward a handful of schools. The NCAA’s decision to intervene, executives hope, will stave off the worst potential disparities for at least a short time.

Still, the path to Monday’s recommendation was speckled with infighting, caution, threats and last-minute maneuvering. No recent development was more consequential than a Supreme Court ruling last week that undercut the NCAA’s approach to antitrust law and pushed the industry toward conceding more rights to athletes than top executives once anticipated.

The case, NCAA v. Alston, was narrowly focused on education-related benefits such as academic awards and paid internships, but the court’s unanimous ruling stripped away some of the legal precedent that the association and its members relied upon for protection for decades. The decision unnerved college sports officials, many of them already drained by seemingly endless court battles, and deepened concerns that a set of strict NCAA rules around athletes’ use of their names, images and likenesses would invite more legal challenges and, perhaps, more resounding defeats.

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