Emily Startup, a second year masters student at the University of Georgia, picks up a Jake Fromm button at Tailgate Georgia in Athens, on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. 
Photo: David Barnes/Special to AJC
Photo: David Barnes/Special to AJC

NCAA creates path to allow athletes to benefit from ‘name, image and likeness’

The NCAA’s top governing body, meeting Tuesday in Atlanta, voted unanimously to allow athletes to be paid for use of their name, image and likeness “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” 

The action by the NCAA Board of Governors left many unanswered questions, which could take more than a year to sort out, and directed each of the NCAA’s three divisions to begin considering updates to rules and policies. 

The meeting, held at Emory University, came as lawmakers across the country show increased interest in ensuring that college athletes can be paid for their fame.

The state of California recently passed a law, effective in 2023, that will make it illegal for colleges in that state to punish athletes for accepting money for endorsements. And legislators in about 20 other states, including Georgia, as well as two members of Congress, have proposed or suggested their own versions of that law.

The action taken by the NCAA board Tuesday seemingly sought to cede some ground on the issue while preserving a firm line between collegiate and professional sports. 

“The board’s action … creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. 

While not providing specific examples of which activities would or wouldn’t be permitted, the board spelled out a series of “principles and guidelines” within which rule changes can be made. It asked NCAA Divisions I, II and III to create new rules by January 2021.

The board said changes should ensure that athletes are treated similarly to other students, should “make clear that compensation for athletics performance or participation is impermissible” and should “reaffirm that student-athletes are … not employees of the university.” Rule changes also must continue to prohibit inducements in the recruiting process, the board stressed.

“We want to be able to give our students who are engaged in intercollegiate athletics the same kinds of opportunities that are available to the rest of the student body,” Georgetown University President John DeGioia, a member of the Board of Governors, said in an interview. “Can we do that in a way … that doesn’t trip the wire and it look like pay-for-play? Because that would be a bright line that we would not be comfortable crossing.” 

Kirby Smart: Coaches just want a ‘level playing field’

The board’s action was based on a report by an NCAA working group, co-chaired by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman, that has been examining the issue for months. 

In an interview after the vote, Ackerman suggested that under new rules, athletes who start a business, write a book or compose a song while in school could use their name to promote the project. But “I can’t tell you today what it means for other endeavors that are more entwined with the athletes’ identity -- autographs, third-party endorsement deals,” Ackerman said. “That is all part of the analysis that is being undertaken by our working group.” 

“We are wrestling with a whole range of issues,” DeGioia said, “and that is the work that will be in front of us as we go forward, trying to understand what our principles will mean in the context of a range of activities that students can be engaged in.” 

Asked if the principles outlined by the board would necessarily preclude a star football or basketball player from doing an endorsement deal with, for example, an auto dealership or Coca-Cola, Smith said: “The principles will guide that discussion to determine what type of activities we ultimately may approve. What you’re describing is an actual activity, and that hasn’t been determined yet. We’re not going as far as California, but the reality is we haven’t made the decisions on exactly what type of activities our membership will support.

“Whatever we come up with will not be something where we actually pay players,” Smith said. “That is just not going to happen for us. We believe in the collegiate model, not the professional model. ... We’re not moving to pay-for-play.”

Cunningham: Changes are just cosmetic

Whether the NCAA will move far enough or fast enough to alter the political landscape on the issue of name, image and likeness is uncertain.

“We’re hopeful that reasonable and rational people who are trying to make decisions on change in the space will allow us to do our work, see what we do and then make the determinations,” Smith said. “But we obviously can’t drive that.”

“One thing that is clear to us is we can’t maintain a model where we have different rules in different states,” Ackerman said. “It’s not just California, but we’re acutely aware of the interests of other states in developing in some cases similar and in other cases very different frameworks. We know we need a uniform set of rules.”

VIDEO: UGA coach Kirby Smart discusses NCAA ruling on player compensation, getting ready for Florida game.

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