Jake Fromm buttons on display at Tailgate Georgia store in Athens last year.
Photo: David Barnes/Special to AJC
Photo: David Barnes/Special to AJC

NCAA action on ‘name, image, likeness’ leaves many questions

One of sports’ hot-button issues – whether college athletes should be paid – took center stage in Atlanta this week. The NCAA Board of Governors, meeting at Emory University, voted unanimously to clear a path for athletes to be compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses. 

The action was a surprising departure from the NCAA’s long-standing position on the issue, but the decision’s suddenness and lack of detail left many questions looming. Let’s examine five of them. 

1. How big a deal is this action, really? 

It’s an acknowledgement that recent pressure from legislators around the country has convinced the NCAA’s top decision makers that the status quo is no longer a viable option. It’s a new course for an organization that long has enforced strict rules forbidding athletes from cashing in on their fame.

But how big a deal Tuesday’s vote by the Board of Governors ultimately turns out to be, whether it turns out to be cosmetic or substantive, depends on the details of the new rules, which won’t be set for more than a year. 

Duke athletic director Kevin White put it this way in Atlanta on the afternoon before the vote: “Can we get to a place that is reasonable and fair? I hope so. I do not think the current system, as it exists, is going to be the way we can operate in the future. I think there is enough sentiment that something needs to change that something will change. So operating the way we currently operate is a non-starter, and then the free-market system, I think, kills the collegiate model forever.

“You’ve got to get to a place in a midpoint that you can live with and that can be operationalized,” White said.

 2. If the NCAA’s goal is to land somewhere between the current rigid system and an anything-goes system, what would that be? 

The Board of Governors, made up mostly of university presidents, said new rules should allow athletes to benefit from their names, images and likenesses “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” The board offered no specific examples of what would -- or wouldn’t – meet that standard, but outlined a set of general principles to guide rule changes.

Those include ensuring that the rules “facilitate fair and balanced competition,” don’t turn athletes into university employees, don’t open loopholes for recruiting inducements and don’t result in pay-for-play. 

Pay-for-play “would be a bright line that we would not be comfortable crossing,” said Board of Governors member John “Jack” DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University. 

Said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, co-chair of the NCAA working group on name, image and likeness issues: “We believe in the collegiate model, not the professional model. … We’re not moving to pay-for-play.” 

Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman, the other co-chair of the working group, offered a few examples of currently prohibited activities that could be permitted under new rules: Athletes could use their names to monetize commercial endeavors such as starting a business, writing a book or composing a song while in college. But she said decisions will have to made on a wide range of other potential money-making opportunities. 

“We are committed to modernizing the model,” Ackerman said.

3. Would a college athlete be allowed to sign an endorsement deal with a local or national company, for example? 

That “hasn’t been determined yet,” Smith said.

But it seems to be further than the Board of Governors expects rule changes to go, considering their emphasis on preserving the collegiate model. Or if such endorsement deals are permitted, there would be extensive NCAA regulation of them, particularly in the area of recruiting. 

Asked if the board-approved principles would preclude an athlete from signing an endorsement deal with, say, a local car dealership or Coca-Cola, Ackerman said: “The question with the activities that you have described would be, could we sync those in a model where we put a premium on the importance of recruiting integrity? Could we come up with a system where, for example, we could minimize booster influence in the recruiting process? Could you have a system where a person affiliated with the university wasn’t adversely affecting the athlete’s decision to go or not go to that school because of a promise of a commercial arrangement as a component of going to that school?” 

Smith said crafting new rules without exacerbating the risk of recruiting inducements is “the biggest challenge that we have.” 

“There is no perfect system to mitigate that risk,” Smith said, “but we need our membership to have that debate (and) look at every activity you can think about and say, ‘How does an institutional compliance office work with that? How does a conference compliance office work with that? Ultimately, how does the NCAA enforcement staff work with that?’” 

Duke’s White said: “The unintended consequences as it relates to recruiting scares the living heck out of me.” 

4. Will the NCAA board’s vote alter the political landscape on the issue? 

The vote probably will have little, if any, short-term effect on lawmakers because no specific NCAA rules have been changed yet.

Even when they are, the changes won’t go as far as the free-market standards in the “Fair Pay to Play Act,” which California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Sept. 30. That law is slated to take effect in January 2023 and make it illegal in California for colleges to prohibit athletes from being paid for endorsements, autograph signings and the like. 

Newsom called the NCAA board’s vote “a step in the right direction,” but added in a statement: “California will be closely watching as the NCAA’s process moves forward to ensure the rules ultimately adopted are aligned with the legislation we passed this year.” 

Lawmakers in about 20 other states where similar bills have been floated, including Georgia, also will be watching. Members of both houses of Congress have weighed in on the need for reform, too. 

“The NCAA Board of Governors finally recognized that change is coming, and they need to adapt their rules to catch up with the times,” U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said in a joint statement. “We believe those rules must be changed to allow athletes to be compensated. 

“The name, image and likeness approach has its own challenges that we must address, and we’ll be carefully reviewing the NCAA’s next steps and working on ways Congress can reform college sports. We need to correct the inequities between what college coaches and the institutions make versus what the athletes receive.” 

5. What are the next steps in the process? 

The NCAA working group will continue to analyze the issue through April. Meanwhile, the Board of Governors directed the leadership of each of the NCAA divisions – Divisions I, II and III, encompassing a total of 1,100 schools – to begin creating their own sets of rules consistent with the principles outlined in the board’s action. 

“Each of those divisions have to go to work trying to understand what it means in their context,” DeGioia said. “Remember we’re talking about 500,000 student-athletes across three divisions. 

“What we hope is we’ll be able to bring all of that work to a close by … the (NCAA) convention in January 2021.”

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