For years, I, along with many others, have invited the NCAA to get in front of the amateurism debate before it sweeps them asunder. Several lawmakers are now threatening to get their brooms out. It appears the NCAA is starting to listen.
On Tuesday, the NCAA announced it has appointed a working group to "examine issues highlighted in recently proposed federal and state legislation related to student-athlete name, image and likeness."
The NCAA had for decades held its left and right pointer fingers in the shape of a cross to protect college sports from being associated with gambling, forbidding any states with legalized gambling from hosting NCAA championship events. That is, until the Supreme Court ended the prohibition on legalized sports gambling last year; now, the NCAA is no longer fainting onto couches at the thought of hosting a championship event across from a casino.
NCAA morality could soon meet the same fate on the issue of amateurism. In addition to U.S. Representative Mark Walker (R-NC) and Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) introducing their own bills to blow up the amateurism model -- yes, hatred of the NCAA's amateurism model is now an issue Republicans and Democrats can agree on -- lawmakers in Washington State are considering doing the same for all college athletes in the Evergreen State. More states could follow. Finally, the NCAA is willing to act.
“This group will bring together diverse opinions from the membership — from presidents and commissioners to student-athletes — that will examine the NCAA’s position on name, image and likeness benefits and potentially propose rule modifications tethered to education,” said Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East and working group co-chair. “We believe the time is right for these discussions and look forward to a thorough assessment of the many complexities involved in this area.”
Ohio State AD and working group co-chairman Gene Smith was quoted in the announcement saying the group's work "will not result in paying students as employees." But, of course, turning athletes into employees has never been the focus of the name, image and likeness (NLI) debate. Granting college athletes the ability to market their own name, image and likeness would keep the relationship between player and school the same while allowing third parties -- be they Nike or Bob's Lawn Mower and Tractor Supply -- to treat athletes like employees.
Consider this image, taken today, of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence appearing in ABC marketing materials alongside paid ABC employees.
The official task of this working group, according to the NCAA, is this:
As part of its efforts, the working group will study modifications of current rules, policies and practices. In particular, it will focus on solutions that tie any changes to education; maintain the clear demarcation between professional and college sports; and further align student-athletes with the general student body.
The Board of Governors charged the working group with writing a set of overarching principles to guide each division as it devises consistent legislation. A final report is due to the Board of Governors in October, with an update provided in August.
Could the NCAA be in the process of approving NLI payments -- so long as they're "tethered to education," as Ackerman said above -- to college athletes a year from now? I wouldn't bet on it, but I'm not sure I'd bet against it, either.
And if you're on the fence on this issue, consider this: if the NCAA approves NLI payments, the NCAA Football video games would be on their way back.