NCAA Tiptoes Toward Change in Compensating Student Athletes

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — If you came to the NCAA convention here expecting to hear a bold, defined vision of the future of college athletics, well, you were naive going in and disappointed coming out.

The governing body of college sports doesn’t do bold. It tiptoes toward change, and only when pressed.

What we got in Anaheim was a lot of vague rhetoric about a willingness to evolve in the face of coast-to-coast legislative and legal pressure, and very little in the way of what those changes will look like. NCAA president Mark Emmert gave a speech Thursday night that acknowledged the criticism of his organization as “unfair” to the athletes. He said it’s up to the NCAA to fix itself, while also keeping open the possibility of accepting a life line from Capitol Hill.

But Emmert didn’t say much in regard to the singular hot topic of the week—how the association will remodel itself in terms of name, image and likeness compensation for athletes. And he underscored the long-held position that a pay-for-play economy isn’t on the table for discussion.

“We have to be clear about one thing,” Emmert said. “College sports is about students playing other students.”

That won’t play well with those who want to tear down the collegiate model and build a new one, channeling much more of the vast sums of revenue into the hands of the students doing the playing. But that’s where the buck stops in Indianapolis.

After his speech, Emmert and Ohio State president Michael Drake, the chairman of the NCAA Board of Governors, did provide a few droplets of specificity. They described a “narrowing of the options” for name-image-likeness that are likely to be put forward as proposals in April, and ultimately become NCAA bylaws a year from now.

The most likely development seems to be a student-athlete “work product,” which could allow athletes to make money from something outside of their actual competition for a university team. Examples offered were writing a book or starting a small business. Athletes also could potentially be compensated for teaching lessons, such as golf or tennis or swimming.

There also has been discussion of individual licensing, which could cover opportunities for sponsorships or endorsements, and group licensing, which could potentially be tied to a rebirth of the late and beloved NCAA video games. The Olympic model that opened up revenue streams in the late 20th century for those athletes could come into play.

Yet after discussions with a dozen administrators here this week, nobody seems sure what the best path forward is. Most are extremely wary of unintended consequences wreaking havoc on campuses—from the impact on Title IX and non-revenue sports to a free-for-all of booster activity trying to buy a competitive advantage for their schools.

While the worst-case scenarios are discussed often, there is an understanding that some risk is going to have to be accepted. It’s just a question of how far into the great unknown the NCAA is willing to go.

“There’s not a defined landing spot,” said Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey.

The uncertainty of the times is palpable enough that Sankey, who famously shies away from answering hypothetical questions, is temporarily willing to entertain them as the college sports leadership grapples for answers.

“This is a time to consider the hypotheticals,” Sankey said. “We do have to think through outcomes, because sooner or later we’re going to step through the looking glass and into a new reality.”

Having been placed on the clock by the spate of state legislative proposals intent on remaking name-image-likeness compensation, the new reality is inevitable. But with the specter of new laws coming on the books in as many as 34 different states, the NCAA will fight that aggressively in search of a single, uniform new law.

And that means the association basically throwing itself upon the mercy of Congress and coming up with national regulation. Emmert has met with a bipartisan Senate working group headed by Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Expect the dialogue with the politicians to continue and intensify in the coming months in search of a favorable solution that isn’t simply being forced down NCAA throats.

“If we don’t do something, it’s going to be done for us,” said Gary Olson, president of Division II Daemen College. “And if it’s done for us, it could be really bad.”

So, yes, the NCAA is pretty much being forced into substantive change against its will. And with great trepidation. But change can be good, especially for an institution so averse to it.

“I view it not so much as an existential threat,” said NCAA chief operating officer Donald Remy, “as an existential opportunity.”