NCAA Making Strides Toward Compensating Athletes, But it Won't Be a Simple Task

College athletes deserve to get paid for their names, images and likenesses, but making it happen remains a complicated process.
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The NCAA takes three hours to finish the last two minutes of a basketball game, so of course blowing up amateurism is going to take some time. And that’s what the NCAA wants now. It wants time.

And then …

Uh …

Well …

School presidents are not … you know … stalling … just … um … trying … very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hard to get this right. And by right, I mean: right for them.

And it will take time. Let’s all understand that: It will take time. And it should take time. There is no more fun media sport than Kick The NCAA in The Head, and many of us also enjoy the I’m Right And You’re Wrong And This Makes You a Horrible Person game, and it is easy to combine those two right now. Athletes deserve to get paid for their names, images and likenesses; this should be done immediately; anybody who says otherwise is awful.

But step back for a second. Look, just so we are clear: I have written more columns supporting the right of athletes to profit from their image and likeness than I can remember. I think I wrote the first one more than a decade ago. I say this so a) you know where I stand, and b) to point out this is not a new issue. But it is a lot more complicated than most people are making it out to be—and, I’m sure, a lot more complicated than I have made it out to be in the past. It’s easy to prescribe solutions in a column. It’s not so easy in the real world.

This is not as simple as only the elite athletes cashing in based on their market value. That is naïve. If athletes can profit off their names, images and likenesses, players will choose schools based on endorsement deals. There will be rosters where pretty much everybody is getting money on the side. This is also the rare legislation that affects every NCAA sport.

Now, we know that the NCAA historically uses “it’s complicated” as an excuse to shrug and sell more Dr Pepper ads. And it is quite possible that the NCAA is using “it’s complicated” as an excuse right now, or will use it as an excuse in the future. But still: it is complicated. There are a million possible consequences that the NCAA must consider.

Here are two:

1. A head coach makes $7 million a year. He invests some of those millions in a startup shoe company. Can that shoe company then pay a player to endorse its product?

You may say “Yes, sure, the free market is the free market.” But then you are essentially approving a system for schools to pay players. And you may be OK with that, too. But that is a long way from “athletes deserve to get paid for their names, images and likenesses,” and it is a direct contradiction to what everybody has said will happen.

You may say, “No, that’s just a way for schools to funnel money through coaches to players, and that’s not what we’re doing here. We don’t want to go that far.” OK. Then what? Do you make that illegal? If so, how does the NCAA enforce it? Can a coach own a few shares of Coca-Cola stock if is player has a Coke endorsement? Where do we draw those lines?

2. We normally think of boosters as people who love, say, Texas A&M. But if companies can pay college athletes for their names and likenesses, CEOs will be making a lot of those decisions, and you know who produces a ton of CEOs? Harvard.

Yes, Harvard. So let’s imagine some billionaire with two Harvard degrees decides he wants the Crimson to have the best basketball team in the country. And so he signs every player on the Harvard basketball team to a $1 million annual salary to endorse his tech company. And naturally, that draws some elite recruits. Then what?

Maybe you’re fine with that. But right now, Harvard doesn’t even have athletic scholarships. Unlike most schools, Harvard doesn’t really think in terms of national championships. Does Harvard really want the best basketball team in the country? If not, where does it go?

These are obviously hypotheticals, and your answers to these questions are yours. I’m not saying what the right answers are. But there are a lot of questions to ask.

The NCAA can decide to fight this, accept it, tightly regulate it, or barely regulate it at all. There are many factors to consider, and there will be circumstances nobody foresees. This will be a radical change to college sports. You might love it, you might hate it, or like a lot of people in college sports, you might fear it. Just don’t pretend it is simple. It isn’t.