Will Jeremy Lin's Potential Endorsement Deal Change NCAA Hoops Forever?

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterOctober 4, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 19: Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets speaks to the media as he is introduced during a press conference at Toyota Center on July 19, 2012 in Houston, Texas. Lin has signed a three year $25 million dollar contract with the Houston Rockets.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

An NBA star teaming up with one of the world's most well-known and well-respected brands? What's so special about that?

Well, when the player in question is Jeremy Lin and the brand in question is Harvard, more than a few heads are bound to turn.

According to Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg News, the New York Knicks-turned-Houston Rockets guard will endorse a Nike-produced line of Harvard merchandise to be marketed and sold worldwide, with an expected focus on East Asia. Last season, Lin became the first player of Taiwanese- or Chinese-American descent to set foot in the NBA.

For Lin, joining forces with his alma mater will serve as yet another lucrative avenue through which to build his already-burgeoning brand around the world, with the U.S., China and Taiwan at the forefront.

"Linsanity" was a massive phenomenon stateside, especially among Asian-Americans who were already plugged into the NBA, but created much bigger financial waves across the Pacific. Asian broadcasters clamored to get Knicks games on television, with advertising partners riding their coattails along the way.

What makes this particular deal so interesting, though, isn't necessarily what it means for Lin—who, at 24, is already an icon all his own—but rather what it means for Harvard and, in the bigger picture, the NCAA.

Harvard is already one of the top-rated universities in the world and has been for some time. It is, after all, the oldest institution of higher learning in America with the nation's largest academic library, with a lengthy list of distinguished alumni that includes 62 living billionaires, 75 Nobel laureates and eight U.S. presidents.

It doesn't hurt, either, that Harvard's endowment ($30.7 billion) is the largest in the world. Surely, the school can afford to bring back Lin as a pitchman.

And, perhaps, trample on uncharted territory in the process. Professional athletes have never been shy to associate with the institutions from whence they came. For instance, it's customary on Sunday Night Football for NFL players to introduce themselves, their positions and their alma maters at the start of every game.

But professional athletes aren't typically paid specifically to mention, much less talk up, colleges and universities. In fact, athletes don't usually see returns from the use of their likenesses by NCAA member institutions at all.

That's precisely the point of the upcoming court case between former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and the NCAA.

O'Bannon and a group of plaintiffs, including NBA legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, allege that the NCAA, its member schools and its corporate partners have been violating federal antitrust laws for some time now by profiting off the names, images and likenesses of former collegiate athletes without permission from or compensation for said athletes. In early September, O'Bannon filed to expand the class action to include current collegians, for whom a temporary trust would be set up and made accessible upon leaving school.

And just this week, a U.S. district judge ordered ESPN to hand over the details of some of its broadcasting and licensing contracts with the NCAA as a means of determining how much the organization has profited and is profiting off the likenesses of current and former athletes.

Where does Lin's situation fit into this? He'll essentially be doing what O'Bannon and his co-plaintiffs have been pushing for since 2009, when the suit was first filed—reaping the rewards of a university's use of his name and face.

The terms of Lin's reported deal remain a mystery, though. How much will Harvard pay him? What specific services will Lin be rendering on behalf of the university?

And, more importantly for O'Bannon vs. NCAA, will the agreement involve the use of Lin's likeness from his days on the Crimson basketball team under head coach Tommy Amaker? If so, Lin and Harvard may well establish a new precedent that images of athletes are indeed valuable to the NCAA and its member institutions and that the use of those images can (and perhaps should) benefit the athletes themselves.

Of course, most of the athletes in question—Division I football and basketball players—won't be able to count on endorsement deals to represent their "old stompin' grounds" internationally. Few, if any, former NCAA student-athletes can boast the sort of global cachet that Lin carries.

What's more, it's unlikely that all college programs within the NCAA's domain have resources enough to follow in Harvard's rather innovative footsteps.

From small colleges operating on shoestring budgets to public universities whose resources have been slashed in recent years, there are plenty for whom the expense of employing alumni for endorsement purposes is either too onerous or too difficult to justify in fiscally troubling times.

That aside, Lin's deal with Harvard figures to be a key point of interest for O'Bannon and the NCAA. It's possible that Harvard's employment of Lin in this regard could be considered the tacit agreement of an NCAA affiliate with O'Bannon's argument, depending on how Lin's contract shakes out.

If so, the NCAA's defense of its longstanding practices may be rendered that much weaker, leaving collegiate athletics as a whole—and college hoops in particular—in a precarious position going forward.

Not that news of a Harvard grad changing the world is anything unusual or earth-shattering in and of itself.