The NCAA on Tuesday caved to outside pressure from legislators, judges, and former college athletes by announcing it would allow student-athletes to earn compensation from the use of their names, images, and likenesses. For decades, college athletes have seen their likenesses used to sell video games, their faces used to advertise nationally televised broadcasts, and their names emblazoned on jerseys sold to fans. What they have not seen, however, is a dime in compensation.
Now, it appears the NCAA is taking a baby step in the direction of giving student-athletes a cut of the proceeds. “We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” Michael Drake, chair of the NCAA’s board of governors and president of the Ohio State University, said in a statement. “Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education. This modernization for the future is a natural extension of the numerous steps NCAA members have taken in recent years to improve support for student-athletes, including full cost of attendance and guaranteed scholarships.”
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The NCAA had resisted such a move for years. And the organization reached its decision to devise a plan for compensating student-athletes only after coming under criticism from all sides and facing pressure to act.
Former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon led a group of former athletes who sued the NCAA over its refusal to pay athletes for the use of names, images, and likenesses. In September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law a bill that would allow student-athletes to profit from endorsement deals and sign with agents — all with an eye toward letting them get paid for their athletic talents. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a former Ohio State football player, has said he plans to introduce a national law modeled after California’s.
“There are a lot of people who are trying to get a piece of the athlete who do not have their best interest in mind and are out for nefarious means,” Gonzalez, a wide receiver who later played in the NFL, told ESPN earlier this month. “You can imagine a world where, if there were no guardrails in place, that it could get out of hand pretty quickly. That’s the lane you’re trying to carve. How do you do this to provide necessary and deserved benefits while not inviting a bigger problem alongside it?”
So, how important is the NCAA’s new announcement?
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College and an expert on the economics of college sports, says that the NCAA’s must be viewed as a reaction to the overwhelming from outside to take action on student-athlete compensation.
“What they’re trying to do here is say, ‘We get it, you don’t have to worry about us anymore,'” he says. “They’re trying to puncture a hole in the balloon of legal and political pressure.”
Zimbalist says the NCAA’s decision is “good news with a caveat.” He points to a specific clause in the NCAA’s announcement — that the organization’s plan to compensate student-athletes will be “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”
“What they’re doing now is saying, ‘We’re good guys, you don’t have to worry about us more, but we’ll give you details later,'” Zimbalist says. “What are the details going to be? What are they going to allow? How is it going to be restricted? There’s still an enormous question mark and but it’s encouraging positive step.”
Drake, the NCAA board chairman, says he has directed the organization’s three divisions to “immediately consider updates to relevant bylaws and policies for the 21st century” so that student-athletes reap the benefits of using their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA board asked the three divisions to implement any new rules as soon as possible and no later than January 2021.
Michael Hausfeld, the lead attorney in O’Bannon v. NCAA, which resulted in a landmark district court decision that the NCAA’s rules preventing student-athletes from getting name, image, and likeness compensation, calls the NCAA’s announcement “long overdue and well deserved.” He tells Rolling Stone the litigation brought by his firm and others “was the spark for a reevaluation and a rethinking by the NCAA as to how much longer they could continually exploit the athletes.”
In terms of what the NCAA’s new policies could look like, Hausfeld says he’s looking to see if the organization will permit both individual and group licenses for athletes and whether those licenses apply to the highly lucrative broadcast TV deals in major college sports. He also wants to know if the NCAA will put a cap on how much student-athletes can earn and who will oversee the licensing and compensation process. “It’s very good for the college athletes,” Hausfeld says. “It’s a recognition of their value in terms of not only winning for their sport but winning for their schools and the NCAA.”
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