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Miller: Olympic model the way forward for college sports

There has been a flurry of activity in the world of college sports since the men’s basketball finale, including massive media rights deals announced by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference, the provisional elimination of the hotly-contested practice of holding “satellite camps” (a.k.a. the Jim Harbaugh Rule) and the discovery that NCAA President Mark Emmert, despite his $1.8M salary, still owes $49,000 to a University of Washington scholarship fund. Way to put education first, Dr. Emmert.

But the most interesting — and encouraging — development of all was the revelation from Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman that there is internal talk about permitting college athletes to profit off of their names, images and likenesses (NIL) by signing endorsement contracts, sponsorship deals, etc. (This is often referred to as the “Olympic” model, because it mirrors the ability of Olympic athletes to pursue third-party compensation for their value of their athletics-related reputation and skill.)

“That’s one that’s actually under consideration I believe by the NCAA,” Ackerman told SI earlier this month. “It’s actually a time right now where student-athlete interests are being closely examined. I don’t have an answer for you on that one today but I will say that and a number of other topics are under review, and I think rightly by the NCAA and it’s very possible that over the course of the next year or two as these these ideas work their way through the legislative system you could see changes.”

In reality, however, proposals revamping the name, image and likeness restrictions are not on any upcoming legislative agenda and, in all likelihood, will take years to pass and implement. Remember, it took decades for the NCAA’s membership to permit cost-of-attendance stipends, so don’t blame me if I don’t hold my breath on this one. Furthermore, final judgment is yet to pass on the O’Bannon lawsuit (still being litigated nearly seven years after the original suit was filed), the ultimate outcome of which could add another wrinkle to the implementation of new NIL rules. Still, the fact that there appears to be dialogue on possibly liberalizing a section of the NCAA’s restrictive, patently unfair and almost certainly illegal amateurism rules is indeed a step in the right direction.

While I’ve touched on the benefits of the Olympic model in college athletics previously, it’s worth revisiting why such a system is the smartest, fairest and perhaps easiest way to allow college players to realize their economic value.

Permitting sponsorships/endorsements treats “student-athletes” more like students.

College athletes (ideally) should be students and thus should be treated as such with respect to the monetization of their names, images and likenesses. On college campuses, only athletes are limited in how much they can earn from their talents/skills; administrators, coaches and non-athlete students are virtually unrestricted in their ability to pursue compensation for their services (whatever those may be).

Although the pool of college athletes whose market value exceeds the value of their total cost of attendance is admittedly small, the reality is that those select few, along with all other athletes, are shut out of the marketplace completely. That is wrong, in my opinion, and the relevant amateurism rules must be radically revamped if college athletes are allowed access to the marketplace that every other party in college sports enjoys. That said, an education/meaningful degree ideally should be the primary goal of an athlete’s college experience, and the NCAA and its member institutions should do everything in their power to ensure that players have every opportunity and the support necessary to succeed in the classroom.

But education and pay are not mutually exclusive, and are, in fact, pursued simultaneously by millions of college students across America. To quote Jay Bilas: “The idea that money somehow gets in the way of education, or if (college athletes are) employees that education is out the window, it’s simply not true, and it’s demonstrably untrue because no other student is told that they can’t make money and still go to school.”

So, either prohibit all students (athletes included) from pursuing compensation/value for their skills/talents while in school, or prohibit none of them. Treating athletes (and only athletes) differently from the rest of the student body is unnecessarily discriminatory and should no longer occur. If these are truly “student-athletes,” then let us treat them like students.

Permitting sponsorships/endorsements will not cost supposedly “cash-strapped” athletic departments a dime.

Athletic departments and their administrators love to push the nonsensical narrative that they always “teeter on insolvency,” so that when the courts and the public come asking for athletes to be paid, they can throw up their hands, clutch their pearls and say, “We can’t! We’re broke!” Of course, they’re not, and everyone knows it, but that doesn’t deter them from using a little accounting magic and obfuscatory PR to make black appear red.

And even if we do accept the claim that college athletic departments are, by and large, poor, the Olympic model does nothing to help or hurt the situation. Allowing college athletes to pursue compensation for their names, images, likeness and athletics-related reputation and skill will have zero impact on the financial operation of their department, because the department won’t be the one paying them. That money would be flowing from apparel and shoe companies, other businesses and private individuals — not school coffers. In this system, athletes would be able to seek true market value and athletic departments would stay rich. A win-win, right?

Permitting sponsorships/endorsements might decrease (if only incrementally) the pressure on the NCAA and its schools to directly compensate their athletes.

As the pressure on the NCAA and its schools — in both the court of law and public opinion — to more equally share the vast wealth generated by college athletes ramps up, allowing players to be paid via endorsement contracts and sponsorship deals might provide a little alleviation. If the public and, importantly, judges can see an NCAA that is willing to curtail its collusive practices for the benefit of its players, then perhaps it can at least partially shake its well-earned reputation of a Draconian cartel.

Once college athletes have access to the marketplace that everyone else enjoys, the well-intentioned drives to classify players as employees and permit schools to compensate them directly might lose steam; they certainly won’t die, nor should they, but it’s possible they could lose some of their momentum. Endorsements or not, however, the pending antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA are not going away anytime soon, which is good news for all college athletes.

The day when college athletes can sign endorsements and sponsorships, and otherwise profit from their NIL just like any other member of the student body is admittedly far off, but it is nonetheless encouraging to know conversations on the issue are taking place at the highest levels of decision-making. Unfortunately, the NCAA has a notoriously difficult time aligning its values and talk with its actions, so don’t get too excited yet. But at least we’ve started the dialogue.

 

Cameron’s column this week is brought to you by Nike. To request the rights to use his headshot, email him at cmiller6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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