The Indianapolis-based NCAA moved forward with a plan Wednesday that would open the doors for college athletes to pursue endorsement and other money-making opportunities, a historic organizational shift that may ultimately prove meaningless in some corners of the country, as state and federal lawmakers scramble to rewrite the rules on amateurism.
The NCAA’s Division I Council, a group of conference officials, university administrators, athletes and other stakeholders who draft NCAA policy, approved a framework that would allow athletes to earn money from the use of their names, images and likenesses, or “NIL.” The proposal could still evolve before the council votes on the final policy in January. If approved then, it would go into effect Aug. 1, 2021.
The plan, which is more restrictive than high-profile laws enacted by Florida and California, was quickly panned by key advocates and lawmakers. And with other statehouses, plus Congress, at work on wide-reaching legislation, the NCAA’s effort could quickly become moot for many member schools.
“The NCAA rules can’t overturn state laws. They have no power there. So this is all window-dressing,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group that has assisted state lawmakers in crafting legislation. “They’re hoping states may see this and think the problems are solved. It’s their way of trying to claw back power.”
Wednesday’s vote was a remarkable concession for an organization that has for years opposed compensating athletes with anything other than athletic scholarships. The NCAA has watched support for its strict amateurism model weaken in recent years, with labor organizations and lawmakers taking up athletes’ cause. Five states have passed legislation addressing athlete endorsements, and more than two dozen others are considering bills.
“This is an important milestone in the progress toward modernizing Division I rules to better support student-athletes in all of their endeavors,” Grace Calhoun, the Division I Council chair and athletics director at Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “We know additional refinements may be needed as we make sure modifications are fair, recognize the importance of the current recruiting structure and that every student-athlete has the same opportunity to benefit.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., an outspoken critic of the NCAA, called the proposal “a joke” and “a non-starter” in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“You cannot put the NCAA in charge of regulating NIL,” he said. “They are never going to put the students’ interests first.”
Allowing the NCAA to set and enforce the guidelines, he says, empowers an agency that has long resisted athlete compensation, opening the door for rules that create additional hurdles for athletes—”a series of traps that are going to end up hurting rather than helping,” he said.
“We already have a byzantine set of rules that end up with students getting penalized and made ineligible for the silliest, slightest violations,” he said. “This feels like more of the same. You’re going to put student-athletes in a position where they’re better off not doing endorsement deals at all because they’d be constantly at risk of losing eligibility.”
The NCAA legislation outlines what would and would not be acceptable for athletes. Private lessons, camps and clinics would be a permissible way for athletes to make money under terms of the proposal, as would product endorsements and autograph sessions.
But there would be potentially suffocating restrictions. Athletes, for instance, would be barred from working with companies that compete with university branding partners. That could limit athletes’ opportunities from shoe and apparel companies, not to mention food, beverage and a wide variety of local businesses that already have sponsorship arrangements with schools.
The NCAA plan would also stop athletes from pursuing opportunities that might conflict “with NCAA legislation,” the organization said in a news release, which would rule out deals with sports wagering or gaming companies. It’s an area that could be ripe for legal challenge, considering that last month, University of Colorado’s athletic department entered into a five-year sponsorship deal with PointsBet, a sports betting operator.
The proposal would also prevent athletes from mentioning their school in any endorsement opportunities they pursue, an exclusion that is not included in most of the state bills or federal legislation that’s under consideration.
“What a great deal for the schools—they get to use the athletes’ names when they’re trying to pump up TV revenue, but the athlete can’t use the school’s name when they’re marketing themselves,” Murphy said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Huma took issue with some of the restrictions in the NCAA’s proposal regarding athlete representation. The proposal allows for athletes to utilize an agent’s services, but it’s limited to endorsement opportunities.
“Players should be able to secure legal and professional representation for any purpose,” he said, “and that includes negotiating with the school. The NCAA wants to keep players and recruits without power. Meanwhile, they have all the lawyers.”
Hoping to avoid a patchwork of varying state laws, the NCAA has pleaded for federal intervention even as it worked to craft its own guidelines. One bill introduced in the Senate and two in the House address these issues, and Murphy said he’ll propose one of his own by the end of the year.
If Congress doesn’t act quickly enough and Division I schools are subject to the new NCAA proposal next year, enforcement could be scattershot. The Florida law goes into effect in July, and Huma anticipates that the NCAA’s proposal will encourage more state legislatures to move quickly.
“There should be a stampede now,” he said. “State lawmakers need to understand that they’re going to be left high and dry if they sit around and wait for the NCAA to save them.”