Many in the media and the public (myself included) have argued that it's patently ridiculous the NCAA requires its athletes to sign away their name, image and likeness (NLI) in order to play college sports -- while at the same time the NCAA and the schools then profit off of those same NLIs. Nowhere else in this capitalist society built upon free enterprise and fighting for every dollar the free market wants to give you do we ask people to sign away their marketability while at the same time turning that marketability into a billion-dollar industry.
But I digress. You're not here to see me rant.
Myself and other like-minded people have no actual power to enact change here. Enter someone who does.
Mark Walker, a Republican Congressman from North Carolina, plans to introduce a bill that would remove the restriction on college athletes from profiting off their NLIs. Walker has been banging this drum for a while, and his talking points are the exact same ones you'd find if you logged on Twitter at the right (or wrong, depending on your stance on the issue) time.
“Signing on with a university, if you’re a student-athlete, should not be (a) moratorium on your rights as an individual. This is the time and the moment to be able to push back and defend the rights of these young adults,” Walker told the Raleigh News & Observer.
“It’s just odd that in our free market system that this is the one area where we say, ‘No. We’ll let you make money for the university, but you can’t have any access to your name or likeness,’” he said. “This is an earning opportunity for 99 percent of these student athletes who will never have another access to do something like this. It’s in that moment that your earning opportunity is prime.”
What has to happen for Walker's bill to pass? Let's ask the experts.
Now, will it pass? Probably not.
Only around four percent of bills actually become law. According to GovTrack.us, a total of 13,556 bills were introduced before the 115th Congress and only 443 became law -- 3.3 percent. Thus far in the 116th Congress, seven of 2,625 total bills have graduated into laws.
If you're the NCAA or just a fan of the status quo, perhaps you can bank on the 25-to-1 odds against Walker's bill succeeding coming down in your favor. But that would mean sticking your head in the sand -- sand that happens to be shifting.
In its 2014 lawsuit against Ed O'Bannon, the NCAA cited a survey that found 69 percent of U.S. adults were against paying college athletes, and that 38 percent would be less likely to watch or attend a college sporting event if they knew the players were paid as little as $20,000.
But survey questions are loaded in how they present the query -- being paid can imply to respondents that athletes would become employees of their universities with a W2 and all, but Walker's bill would simply allow players to sell their NLI rights on the open market. In short, instead of just sending all their money to Coach K and the Duke athletics department, Nike could also cut a check to Zion directly and put him in March Madness commercials. (As opposed to the promos CBS and Turner will run that feature Zion, which the networks use to entice viewers, thus recouping the $1 billion a year they pay the NCAA for the rights to broadcast March Madness, which then goes to the schools.... wait a minute, I'm ranting again. Sorry. Won't happen again.)
To further this point, a 2017 Washington Post/UMass poll found 52 percent of adults said college athletes should not be paid employees of their athletics departments, but two in three thought those same athletes should have the right to market their own image.
"Here’s the thing: We’re not asking the university, we’re not asking the NCAA to pay a single dollar into this," Walker said. "You’ve done your part offering a full scholarship. Just don’t restrict the rest of it."
This debate is happening at the same time the U.S. Justice Department is prosecuting and convicting college basketball coaches in a massive bribery and corruption scandal that is still unfolding. That a market for college athletes' services exists is now proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, so the legality of cutting athletes out of that market is now a legal debate to be had -- and Walker is not the only one having it. In January, a Washington state representative introduced a bill that would give all state of Washington college students the right to be paid for their image, as well as the right to hire an agent to broker the sale of said image.
Walker's bill will likely fail (it's just a bill, after all), but public opinion is changing. Coach K and Bill Self have gone on record saying they'd like to see athletes get a larger cut of the pie, to name two powerful examples. More have and will join them in the future. The NCAA has an opportunity to get in front of the issue, or they can have change forced upon them at some indefinable date in the future. Knowing the NCAA as we do, it will opt for Door No. 2.
In the meantime, the NCAA will stage a basketball tournament later this month. Perhaps you're familiar with it. For three and only three weekends each year, college basketball sits front and center of our national consciousness. Some lucky, anonymous player will become an overnight sensation, hitting a buzzer-beating shot that will be recapped on every TV and phone screen in the country. Then, time will pass, the tournament will end and we'll all move on. That lucky, anonymous player -- at once a national sensation -- will become an anonymous former player. He'll go pro in something other than sports, and as years pass he'll turn on his TV or go back to campus and he'll see the NCAA and his school use his shot to make money for themselves, and he'll remember that he'd have been ineligible for the next game had he done the same.
Sorry, I ranted again. Couldn't help it.