The NCAA Compensating Players Was a PR Stunt

These changes were not as impressive as marketed

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In a recent decision, the NCAA’s top governing board voted unanimously to allow college athletes to receive compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness. Each of the NCAA’s divisions must still create their own rules and details on the specifics.

Like many people, I saw the headlines in almost every major outlet and immediately thought this was a win for not only the players, but for everyone who fights for fair compensation in America. Not compensating student athletes has historically been especially egregious for many, not just because they are a major part of the NCAA’s show, but because they frankly are the show.

Student athletes have been the labor, marketers, influencers and overall reason that the NCAA, a nonprofit organization, earns nearly $1 billion in revenue annually. From the Fab Five at Michigan in the 1990s to Reggie Bush at Southern California in the early 2000s, players have often been bigger than the NCAA brand itself.

Now we are in a moment where college athletes have more tools and access than ever to build notoriety, excitement and brand loyalty for themselves and their programs, and everyone has made money from their influence—except the players.

From star quarterback Trevor Lawrence bolstering the Clemson football brand to the millions of dollars Zion Williamson brought to college basketball to the excitement Katelyn Ohashi brought to college gymnastics, we’ve seen the exceptionalism of college athletes raise the profiles of even the most storied schools.

We are in a renaissance of access and entertainment where players such as Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray can have more social media followers than both the college he attended and the NFL team he was drafted by. Which is why many have praised the NCAA for finally being on the side of change by allowing their athletes to be compensated. But a deeper look at the NCAA’s decision actually reveals that what they actually did was nothing at all, merely smoke and mirrors.

One of the problems with the decision is that the statement released by the NCAA about it is extremely vague and doesn’t offer an outlook on implementation. In fact, the statement doesn’t even guarantee players will receive payments. It says they will have the “opportunity to benefit.” This is phrasing is at best thoughtless, and at worst, strategically ambiguous.

The NCAA also states that the “benefits” should be “consistent with the collegiate model.” This doesn’t make sense because the collegiate model as it currently stands doesn’t allow student athletes to be compensated in any form.

The statement does speak to the “modernization” of the current rules, but again, is vague with no true implementation strategy given. Unless the collegiate model is going to change, the language is inherently contradictory to the broad concept that has been presented.

That said, the NCAA has stated that its deadline to create an implementation plan and new rules is 2021. While that means we may see updates to their plan over the next year, right now it comes off as lackluster and possibly rushed. The sudden haste by the NCAA seems like an attempt to alter the narrative about being a villain, as pressure mounts from various directions to give student athletes more rights.

One example of that pressure has come from California Governor Gavin Newsom, who passed legislation in September that unilaterally allows student athletes in the state to be compensated for their name, image and likeness with no restrictions. Other large states such as New York and Florida were also gearing up to propose similar legislation, which put further pressure on the NCAA.

Not only did Newsom pass the bill, but he signed it on an episode of LeBron James’ HBO show The Shop. This made sense for many, as James has been very outspoken about the need for rights for athletes at both amateur and professional levels. But this may have also been a nod to James’ agent and longtime friend Rich Paul, who also spends his time trying to find ways to further empower and compensate players at every level.

Paul, one of the most powerful agents in sports, famously went to battle with the NCAA over what many called the Rich Paul Rule. After an op-ed in the Atlantic by Paul and a great deal of pushback, the NCAA was forced to backtrack on their new criteria that would have required agents to have college degrees.

Many felt a major reason for the attempt was to smite Paul over his client Darius Bazley. Bazley caused an uproar and left a bad taste in some mouths after committing to Syracuse but then opting to forgo college and instead take a $1 million internship with New Balance and training on his own. Bazley was selected 23rd in the 2019 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder without attending college.

If the NCAA decided to do the right thing and allow student athletes to be fairly compensated, you likely never have a Darius Bazley situation again. But this won’t be the last time we see something like this happen if the NCAA doesn’t stop the public relation stunts and actually empower their students to be paid for what they’ve earned and deserve.

Ultimately, as individuals around the world are being compensated for their influence, talent and marketability, the walls are closing in on the NCAA to make change. Student athletes were some of our first influencers; it’s unfair that they be the last to be paid for it.