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Trevor Lawrence: The Face of the College Athlete?

Will Clemson Quarterback Trevor Lawrence be the face of the name, image, and likeness challenge for student-athletes against the NCAA?
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Wednesday, April 28, 2020, paved the way for the landscape of college athletics to be changed forever, as the NCAA approved a path for athletes to earn compensation through their name, image and likeness. 

“The NCAA’s work to modernize name, image and likeness continues, and we plan to make these important changes on the original timeline, no later than January 2021,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State senior vice president and athletics director and working group co-chair. “The board’s decision today provides further guidance to each division as they create and adopt appropriate rules changes.”

While the NCAA has just issued what many believe to be the final blow to true amateurism in sports, there is still much to be decided—and those athletes, who have long suffered for increased compensation, will need a voice.

Peter Burns of ESPN believes the perfect person to champion the cause of those athletes is none other than Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

"As I said on @ESPNRadio, college athletes have NEVER had this much leverage in the history of their sport. They need a spokesperson. And that spokesperson should be Trevor Lawrence. Could lead a legacy that far greater impacts this sport than his play on the field," Burns tweeted April 6.

However, would doing so, put a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy and leader of the presumptive No. 1 football team for the 2020 season at odds with his head coach?

“If you professionalize college, you might as well coach the pros," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after last year's vote by the NCAA moved the discussion forward. "I have always been for the value of education and the collegiate experience. I always have been. Nothing has changed.

“But I have always said I am hundred percent for a way to modernize the collegiate model. Modernize the scholarship. I love the fact that we have a stipend. Somebody said one time I was against the stipend. I never was against the stipend. I think the stipend should have been more, as a matter of fact. I am for all of those things.”

While Swinney apparently has softened his stance since telling reporters that if players were going to be paid, he would find another job, it is still clear that he wants to maintain the current "collegiate model."

“I think it is a positive there is going to be some conversation, but I am for the collegiate model,” Swinney said. “I am 100% for the collegiate model and the value of education. That is never going to change with me. Our country needs that and these kids need that for sure.

“I think there is a way to make it all work in a really positive way. Nobody really asked my opinion, but if they ever did, I would be happy to share it with them. I think there are lots of ways you can capitalize and make it better for everyone and keep it equitable within the collegiate model.”

But some of the leaders in Washington, D.C. do not agree with Swinney.

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“My belief is NIL is totally insufficient,” Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, told SI in a February meeting. “Giving students access to make money off their NIL is totally insufficient to solve this problem. I’m of the mind that we should be looking at a broader set of legal protections to allow schools to compensate athletes.” 

But back to the bigger question: should Trevor Lawrence carry the torch for the future of college athletes?

This is a difficult question, and one that is best looked at from both sides.

On the one hand, Lawrence will be the face of the NCAA's revenue bellcow—football. So why shouldn't the face of the NCAA's moneymaker be the face of the athletes? Let's be honest, the kids, and adults that are purchasing Clemson jerseys are not buying No. 75, 88 or 67—they are buying No. 16. The leverage that a well-spoken, charismatic, young man, who is as clean-cut as the Beave could bring to the debate table is hard to argue against. In fact, we have already seen what his star power can bring to the room, through his GoFundMe page that was built to raise funds for those affected by COVID-19.

Lawrence and his girlfriend Marissa Mowry, a soccer player at Anderson University, opened the account for COVID-19 family relief and support. Mowry took to Instagram to announce that the campaign was over after there was confusion over whether NCAA rules allowed it.

However, that wasn't before the two student-athletes raised $2,670, which is going to Meals on Wheels America and No Kid Hungry, and Lawrence later announced that he and Mowry were restarting their fundraising efforts.

"Shoutout to the NCAA. Thank you so much for granting a waiver," he said. "Everyone's made them out to be the bad guy, but it was more just so of the rules that have already been in place. They've done a really good job of responding and allowing us to do it."

It is that kind of star power that will give Lawrence the power to bend the ear of, arguably, one of the most archaic entities in sports.

On the other hand, Lawrence does not owe anything to the future of college athletics.

Lawrence has a plethora of other obligations besides taking on the NCAA. As the leader of the No. 1 team in the nation, the face of a team, a university, a town and being a full-time student, Lawrence has more than enough on his plate without being the face of the future of college sports.

If Lawrence chooses to take this baton and run this race, one thing must be understood—it is a marathon, not a sprint. Does he want his final season to be one of facing the media to talk about a battle with the NCAA, or talking about his team, and its run at a sixth straight College Football Playoff appearance? Does he want his final season to be filled with controversy, or joy of playing a game that he loves?

No one can make the decision for Lawrence. There is not a right or wrong choice. But two things remain certain—we are still a long way from a resolution, and Lawrence remains skeptical that NIL benefits can be folded into the collegiate model.

“I don’t get paid to do that (NIL stuff),” Lawrence said. “I don’t think it will affect me...It’ll be something that will be; it’ll be tough. I don’t know how you really make that work because there’s got to be a limit, I think, on that.”