NCAA May Have Solution to Pay-for-Play Debate, If It Doesn't Trip over Itself

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterOctober 30, 2019

FILE - This is an April 25, 2018, file photo, showing NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. The NCAA Board of Governors took the first step Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, toward allowing athletes to cash in on their fame, voting unanimously to clear the way for the amateur athletes to
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

The gang that can't get out of its own way is at it again, offering progress while setting up roadblocks to impede the very momentum it claims to be championing.

Welcome, everyone, to the NCAA's groundbreaking decision to allow student-athletes to make money off their names, images and likenesses.

At first glance, the move is a welcome reprieve for an organization that has long fought the pay-for-play movement.

"It's a godsend," one Power Five athletic director told B/R. "We're not winning that [debate] much longer. We're already doing it now with cost-of-attendance [stipends]. That door has been cracked open and will eventually be wide-open unless we get control of it. The NIL changes everything."

But given the history of college sports' governing body, it should come as no surprise that the association is making this more complicated than it has to be.

Rather than trumpet the come-to-Jesus moment the NCAA's decision appeared to be, the organization focused on process—and left open the possibility that reform may not happen at all. 

On Tuesday, the organization's Board of Governors announced that the NCAA's three main divisions will have until January 2021 to create new rules to meet the NCAA's recommendation, and those rules must "maintain the priorities of education and the collegiate experience to provide opportunities for student-athlete success." More than 1,100 universities will be allowed their say and their tweaks to any potential plan.

Translation: They're going to drag out for as long as possible what they were forced into politically by an NIL law passed in California and others pending in numerous states.

Yes, the organization is a collection of schools, and sweeping reform in any institution takes time. But opening the door to more than a year of proposals, debates and feedback is adding bricks to a cart that aren't needed.

As college sports' governing body, the NCAA can force members to abide by any new NIL bylaw. It doesn't need 1,100 opinions to get this done. How long did it take the NCAA to figure out its latest $8.8 billion NCAA tournament contract with multiple TV partners? (The contract included rights for Bleacher Report and its parent companies, such as Turner Sports.) No matter the time frame, it likely didn't canvass all of its member schools for their opinions on the deal. If the association wants it done, it gets done in a timely manner.

Here we have the answer to a decades-old argument right in front of the NCAA's face, and yet it is still hoping to delay what it can no longer avoid.

"It's the get-out-of-jail-free card," another Power Five athletic director told B/R. "[But] too many [in the NCAA] can't see it."

This is a group that for years paid graduate assistant coaches like high school fast-food workers until a federal court decision forced it to change. This is a group that once placed a program (Boise State) on probation for players allowing recruits to, among other things, sleep on the floors of their dorm rooms, yet allowed another (North Carolina) to avoid major sanctions for allowing student-athletes to use fake classes to stay eligible because—are you ready for this?—the entire student body had the ability to take the fake classes, too. 

It will take years before stars such as Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts are allowed to profit from their likenesses while still in college, assuming the NCAA approves of new bylaws by the 2021 date it announced on Tuesday.
It will take years before stars such as Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts are allowed to profit from their likenesses while still in college, assuming the NCAA approves of new bylaws by the 2021 date it announced on Tuesday.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The NCAA will not comment on the specifics of its NIL working group, releasing only a statement from the chairman of the board of governors and Ohio State President Michael Drake that stated: "We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes."

Sounds great, but don't think for a second the NCAA would have budged if there wasn't something in it for themselves.

It's simple, really. By allowing student-athletes to use their NIL, the NCAA doesn't have to share the billions of dollars from conference television contracts, the football postseason (now, and the inevitable expanded playoff) and the NCAA basketball tournament.

By giving student-athletes the ability to earn money with their NIL, all the pitfalls of pay-for-playmost notably, federal Title IX mandatesare avoided. The market decides who gets paid and how much, not each university. By embracing progress, the NCAA avoids what it has run from for so long—the push to pay athletes something in recognition of the millions they generate for their schools and associated businesses.

Major figures within the NCAAathletic directors, university presidents, coacheshave said they're in favor of finding ways to get student-athletes more money for their services. Legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was compelled to issue a statement recently in support of the movement, saying: "We have not always responded to the needs and rights of our players swiftly, and frankly, we're playing catch-up after years of stagnant rules."

Arizona president Robert Robbins, one of the NCAA's most progressive presidents, told B/R last year that, "We need to do as much as we can to support the players. There are issues and complexities of paying players, but I wouldn't be against the concept."

The NCAA's longstanding stance against pay-for-play begins and ends with the "amateur model" it has held onto with a death-like grip, and it includes the circular logic that for years was impenetrable: If we pay football players, we have to pay tennis players and swimmers the same amount, too.

With the NIL, that argument no longer is valid. Universities won't pay student-athletes; not a dime will come from their coffers when it comes to NIL deals that will be negotiated by players and their families and associates, not the universities.

There is no Title IX argumentdiscrimination on the basis of sexwith the advent of the NIL. Men and women have equal ability to market themselves.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has the same chance to land a deal with Head & Shoulders as Oregon basketball star Sabrina Ionescu.

Why, you ask, would anyone at the NCAA be opposed to this? Because, like anything else, there will be those who try to cheat the system.

The (already dirty) world of recruiting could become more unseemly, with deep-pocket boosters promising 5-star recruits endorsement deals if they play for State U. Or boosters paying an All-American hundreds of thousands of dollars for simply saying "Joe's Auto World is my car dealer, make them yours, too."

Third parties will get involved with negotiating deals, even if there are NCAA rules against it. But as the NCAA usually does, it will implement strict guidelines and enforcement, adding yet another layer to an already criticized process for current rule-breakers (see: no sanctions for fake classes).

The NCAA's decision will allow any athlete, such as Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, to be compensated for use of their likeness, a rule that would allow the organization to avoid running afoul of Title IX laws.
The NCAA's decision will allow any athlete, such as Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, to be compensated for use of their likeness, a rule that would allow the organization to avoid running afoul of Title IX laws.John Locher/Associated Press

One Power Five AD told B/R that there might even be an earnings cap of sorts, where once student-athletes reach a threshold of income from their NIL, it impacts their scholarship funds.

For example, if Joe Quarterback earns $60,000 in one season, he surpasses the value of his scholarship and would have to pay back a percentage—but still keep all the benefits of the scholarship. In other words, he would be paying for the benefits of his scholarship instead of the school. 

"I don't buy that whole 'everyone cheats' idea, but there are some that do now and there will be more who do in the future," another Power Five athletic director told B/R. "We're naive to think otherwise. But that doesn't mean we can't make this [NIL] work for the betterment of student-athletes. The heavy lifting is in getting those who aren't budging on the same page as those who see the future."

The future is the NIL because it could save the NCAA millions of dollars from what was likely an inevitable pay-for-play system.

If only it doesn't stub its toe on the way to the finish line. 


Matt Hayes covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @matthayescfb.


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