By Jim Zimmerman, M.S. |
The NCAA may be facing its toughest test in the history of the organization. California’s Senate Bill 206 “Fair Pay to Play Act” puts the NCAA on notice to decide how important amateurism is to its core existence. California Senate bill 206 now makes it illegal for California universities to limit the revenue a student-athlete may receive from their image and likeness. In other words, student-athletes will now be able to make money from autographs, commercials, endorsements, etc. Will the NCAA stand its ground and fight for amateurism and fair play as its mission suggests? Will student-athletes receive what they are worth or are they already compensated fairly with scholarships and stipends?
To understand the magnitude of the situation, we need to understand what exactly the NCAA is as an organization. The NCAA is a voluntary organization. No school in the country is required to be a member of the NCAA. Schools may be a member of the NCAA, NAIA, USCAA, NCCAA, or any other national governing body they would like to create. For years, the NCAA has been the go-to organization for colleges and universities for rules regulation and guidance on athletic eligibility. The NCAA is not a random group of people making decisions for intercollegiate athletics. Presidents of all member institutions along with athletic and academic administration direct the NCAA by creating proposals and passing legislation. Member institutions create all legislation the NCAA follows.
The NCAA is a national governing body the members direct, and the NCAA is there to govern competition in an equitable manner while keeping education at the forefront. The value of an education is sometimes lost in this discussion over student-athletes’ image and likeness. The passion of consumers, alumni, and fans has created a business opportunity within this model that attempts to protect education. That passion is overwhelming and creates an environment difficult to govern under the concept of amateurism.
The Olympic model is often suggested for the NCAA to follow, but people may underestimate the passion that college sports fans have for their institutions and the level of money and corruption that paying student-athletes for their image might create. Arguably, Olympic athletes are sponsored for their abilities, but maybe more so for the USA on their chest. Supporting a nation’s cause seems to be acceptable across the board. Will supporting an institution’s cause, by paying a student-athlete off the field of play, create an opportunity for alumni and boosters to unduly influence their team’s success as well as influence athletic department decisions?
The NCAA is much different from professional organizations like the NFL, MLB, NBA, or NHL. There is no Collective Bargaining Agreement in the NCAA. There is no employee/employer relationship at the college level. Professional organizations would often violate anti-trust law without a Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiated by the players’ unions and the ownership of the leagues’ teams. While the NCAA may be concerned with antitrust law and “restraining trade,” the NCAA is still a voluntary organization. No school has to belong to the NCAA. With California’s new bill, they could create a “league of their own.” Schools such as UCLA, USC, Cal, Fresno State, San Jose State, etc. can create their own state championship and allow players to follow any rules they set forth.
If the NCAA stands its ground, will California schools want to belong to the NCAA or will they pursue creation of a new organization that allows for more freedom for athletes to work and make money from their own image and likeness? Maybe it is time for a new organization to be created or maybe it is time for the NBA and NFL to remove restrictions that require high school athletes to sit out before entering their respective drafts.
Currently, the market value for a high school senior student-athlete is very low. The only options high school graduates have, in basketball and football, are to go overseas or play in a lesser professional league in the United States. Obviously, most student-athletes have been choosing college over those options. Why? Putting a Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, jersey on must be worth something. How much is it worth to Zion Williamson to put a Duke jersey on over a Maine Red Claws jersey? It’s hard to answer that question, but it seems to be worth more to wear the Duke jersey. What is the Nike Swoosh worth that is on the Duke jersey? The “Swoosh” may be worth more in future shoe contracts than the jersey and a players own image.
Ongoing investigations may tell us the players who are able to make money off their image and likeness already are receiving revenue the NCAA deems inappropriate. Universities like Kansas, Arizona, Louisville, among others have recently been investigated by the NCAA and even the FBI for major violations involving pay for play schemes. Adidas and Nike are companies that have come up in these investigations, and in the near future, we will be seeing some results from these investigations.
While the NCAA is concerned about the corruption already taking place in college basketball, it must be concerned about the corruption a bill like this could support. What could an organization like Nike do for the student-athletes at the University of Oregon? Will boosters be allowed to hire student-athletes to endorse their car dealership or restaurant at any price imaginable? If the NCAA allows student-athletes to use their image and likeness for economic gain, how can limits be enforced? If limits are put in place, will anti-trust litigation ensue? Is there an employee/employer relationship created? Will this lead to a student-athlete organization that will negotiate with the NCAA to avoid antitrust litigation? What will “March Madness” become with a new organization? How can schools like Montana State, Idaho State, and North Dakota State, be expected to enter a tournament against teams with recruits that are being paid thousands of dollars off the field or court?
Wearing a Montana State jersey does not quite compare to the value of wearing a Michigan or Ohio State jersey. Does wearing an Iowa State or Kansas State jersey even compare? Will these students-athletes really be making money from their image and likeness or will revenue come from being associated with the jersey they are wearing? Lebron James and Zion Williamson are names that come to mind who could make money from their image coming out of high school, but personalities like Lebron and Zion are rare. Does major college football provide an example similar to Zion or Lebron? So, why is California creating a bill for such a small portion of the amateur sport landscape? Will this bill create a fair and equitable system or will it create a legal format to corrupt amateur athletes and college sports, as we know it?
Several questions are posed in this dilemma and I am not sure Senators from California along with administrators with the NCAA will be able to answer them with any real substance. Intercollegiate athletics have been a staple in the United States over the past 100 years and I hope a formula exists to continue the great traditions. Only time will tell. If the NCAA stands its ground, we could be in for a tremendously interesting time in amateur sport governance and anti-trust law legislation.
Jim Zimmerman, M.S., is the Director of Sport Management at the University of Saint Mary and an alumnus of the United States Sports Academy.