You may not know who Tom McMillen is, but you should. McMillen is the president and CEO of the LEAD1 Association, the lobbying arm of College Sports, Inc. Listing the entirety of FBS as its membership, McMillen’s organization is where the big-time athletics departments go when they want Congress to protect or further their interests. LEAD1 notes that it’s not a lobbying organization, but LEAD1 describes its Washington, D.C., location this way: “The LEAD1 headquarters relocated to Washington, D.C., to allow for greater engagement with national policy makers that have a profound impact on student-athletes.”
On Wednesday, LEAD1 released McMillen’s weekly video address, which tackled the organization’s stance — which, in turn, means College Sports, Inc.’s stance — to the so-called Olympic model, which does not pay athletes a salary but in turns allows athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness through endorsements and the like. McMillen surveyed his 130 members and found that 79 percent of FBS ADs support granting athletes their NLI rights for non-athletic purposes but just 26 percent feel the same for athletic purposes. If an athlete wants to make money as an actor or a model, he or she should be free to do so, according to four in five FBS ADs. But just one in four believe they should have the right to appear in commercials based on their athletic prowess.
And that seems like an important headline, does it not? Twenty-six is a pretty low number on a 100-point scale, after all. But the number lacks context. Statistically speaking 17 of the 65 Power 5 ADs would support the full-on Olympic model for college athletes. How does that number compare with the same group in, say, 2005? Or 2015? Which direction does that number move by 2020?
Further, doesn’t it seem like the athletic purposes vs. non-athletic purposes wedge is a distinction without a difference? How would anyone prove if Baker Mayfield got a movie role on his acting talents instead of the fact that he’s Baker Mayfield?
McMillen then explained LEAD1’s stance, but I’m not sure his explanation actually helped the case against the Olympic model. Let’s dive in.
“Our ADs would be concerned about recruiting abuses. Let’s say a car dealer alumnus gives all the prospective recruits new cars for appearances at the dealership. That’s an inducement. That’s the kind of abuse our ADs would be concerned about.”
An argument can be made that allowing boosters to provide endorsements would actually level the playing field in college football. Imagine if Memphis could pitch 5-star recruits with FedEx endorsements. Couldn’t UCF or South Florida build their programs by harnessing the Orlando and Tampa business communities to get Knights and Bulls to pitch their products? What’s the nightmare scenario here, that all the biggest programs get the lion’s share of the best recruits? That’s the exact system we have now, except not everyone plays by the same rules. Bringing everything above board would only make college sports more fair.
“Secondly, the NCAA has been traditionally opposed to any kind of NIL payments because such payments would violate the core principal of not providing benefits to student-athletes in excess of their college education. This is also complicated by current litigation in the California courts about whether to pay student-athletes.”
The argument here is that the NCAA can’t support the Olympic model because… it never used to support the Olympic model. In an industry that preaches constant evaluation and evolution, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is not an acceptable answer to any successful coach or AD, but LEAD1 lists it as the second best reason the Olympic model can’t work.
McMillen doesn’t state which court case he’s referencing here, but a Ninth Circuit Court in Oakland, Calif., ruled on behalf of former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by withholding payments from the NCAA video games to athletes. The NCAA appealed that ruling in 2016 and lost. That case was the impetus for providing cost-of-attendance scholarships that are now standard in the industry.
“And finally, there is concern about the execution of such a program. How do student-athletes balance their education demands with their appearances (for) endorsements. Many have even suggested limiting this program to only academically-qualified student-athletes. And finally, making sure that the companies that are involved are legitimate and acceptable.”
Take a look at the second sentence there. Some ADs apparently believe that there should be a threshold where Baker Mayfield could earn a GPA high enough to play — thus allowing Oklahoma to make money off of his labor through jersey sales and the like — but not high enough to where Mayfield himself could earn a cut of those sales.
McMillen then goes on to list reasons why changing the status quo wouldn’t work, but ends up listing reasons why it would work.
“The good news about this is there would be no Title IX concerns, it would limit the kinds of abuses.. and wouldn’t require cuts to other sports or other programs because the money would be coming from outside the university.”
McMillen argues that only a small number of athletes would generate enough interest on the open market to even bring the Olympic model into play. And he’s probably right. For the second-string softball player at Kentucky, the point guard at Santa Clara, the 1-technique at Southern Miss, the current system is slanted heavily in their favor. Their school gives more to them than they give to the school. But there is a select few where the arrangement is slated heavily in the other direction — the Baker Mayfields, the Johnny Manziels, the Lamar Jacksons. And, sure, those guys have NFL paydays waiting them, but there are plenty of athletes whose peak marketability comes in college. The Loyola Chicago basketball team became an overnight national sensation, but what will become of it? The Ramblers head coach will get a new contract. The assistants may get head jobs elsewhere. Sister Jean became a brand — according something called the Bobblehead Hall of Fame, her bobble-headed likeness became the fastest-selling of its kind, ever. But the players who made that Final Four run actually happen are barred by the NCAA from cutting a commercial for burger joint around the corner from campus. Beyond that, they could put their eligibility in question by even accepting a free burger from said joint.
Yes, that example is the exception, not the rule. McMillen believes that shows it’s just not worth the trouble of upending the college sports model.
Taking this step to help elite student-athletes — like Olympic athletes can do today with their name, image and likeness — might help to reduce the ever-growing pressure to pay student-athletes and that would undermine the whole college sports model.
I don’t see the Olympic model the path to undermining the college sports model. I see it as the path to preserving it.