The NCAA has begun looking into rule changes that would grant players more freedom. This is good, but it’s not without some major challenges they’ll have to solve first.
The NCAA is putting together a working group to explore how its rules can be modified to let players profit off their own name and likeness. This is a good move by the NCAA, even if it is largely a result of political pressure.
As explained on Athlon Sport’s Cover 2 Podcast, college football has ballooned from a multi-million dollar industry to a multi-billion dollar one since the NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma supreme court case broke the NCAA’s restrictive stranglehold on universities’ TV rights. As a result, today’s superstar college athletes like Deshaun Watson and Tua Tagovailoa generate significantly more money for their schools than stars in the 70s ever could.
The athletes have benefited somewhat from this growth. They’re certainly treated well – few would argue that point after seeing Clemson’s “Dabo World” Football Complex or reading about the detailed nutritional work done for each football player. Player stipends and increased freedom in transferring between schools have been added perks for players. Additionally, the cost of college tuition has ballooned while their scholarships continue to provide that at no cost. Nevertheless, these benefits are relatively minor in comparison to the mountains of money schools are now reeling in with bigger and bigger TV contracts ($40.9 million annually for each football program in the SEC).
Furthermore, the amateur rules so ardently enforced by the NCAA seem farcical and archaic in light of the new economics of the sport. Just look at the case of the UCF kicker who was making money off ads on his own YouTube channel that the NCAA demanded he shut down. On it’s face, this seems blatantly unfair. It is victimless and shows great entrepreneurship. The NCAA may be objecting for a myriad of convoluted and self-interested reasons, but there are some legitimate issues with allowing players to profit from their own likeness.
Imagine a student deciding between Vanderbilt and Tennessee. It’s hard enough for Vanderbilt, with their limited fan base and facilities to win over the key undecided recruit. Now imagine if players could sell autographs, YouTube ads, and sponsorships. Obviously, a successful player at UT would have far more opportunities to do those things and do it for higher dollar than a similarly successful player at Vanderbilt. The NCAA’s ban on them therefore helps promote parity (the final shreds remaining) between large (Tennessee, Texas, NCSU) and small (Vanderbilt, Baylor, Wake Forest) schools.
Another issue that could arise with players profiting off their name and likeness is the even easier avenue it creates for boosters to bribe recruits to go to their favorite team. Imagine if all five-star freshmen that signed with a major state school like UGA over the past decade were offered $100,000 sponsorship opportunities with a local business owned by a booster upon their enrollment. Maybe the business doesn’t see a good ROI on that, but who is to say the business can’t make their own “marketing” decisions? Now, those five-star recruits are left to decide between the school they really want to attend and the one where they can almost assuredly make $100,000 in sponsorship dollars right from the start. Are those the perverse incentives we want entering our beloved sport?
For those reasons, the NCAA’s decision isn’t as simple as it might seem. That said, most people can see the silliness of players not being able to profit off their own entrepreneurial YouTube channel or sell their own Air Jordan shoes.
College football went from a budding sport in the 70s to a multi-billion-dollar industry, and the NCAA has been slow to adjust. Now, they’re finally working to ensure players get the same proportion of what is now a much bigger pie – allowing graduate transfers, adding player stipends, removing schools’ ability to restrict transfer destinations, and now this. If the NCAA can find a way to manage the very real challenges involved with allowing players to use their own likeness, it seems to strike the right balance and be in the best interest of the players and the long-term health of amateur sports – even if it comes at the unfortunate expense of small schools keeping pace.