By Miles Montgomery | Illustration by Cate Johnson

The plot surrounding the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s longtime refusal to allow compensation for student athletes has thickened, and the NCAA is finally acting on the cacophony of protest against its outdated and exploitative regulations on its athletes.

On April 29, 2020, the NCAA, in an unprecedented step, released a statement on its official website outlining its initial steps towards implementing new compensation regulations.

“At its meeting this week, the Board of Governors supported rule changes to allow student-athletes to receive compensation for third-party endorsements both related to and separate from athletics,” read the statement, a radical U-turn for an organization that, as recently as November, was appealing California’s state ruling permitting compensation for collegiate athletes. “It also supports compensation for other student-athlete opportunities, such as social media, businesses they have started and personal appearances within the guiding principles originally outlined by the board in October.”

The NCAA had previously drawn a hard line on endorsements, notably with the 2013 investigation into Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was accused of allegedly autographing jerseys and memorabilia, a violation that could have ruled Manziel ineligible to compete. Under the proposed new regulations, this would be a NCAA legal activity, opening a host of financial opportunities for collegiate athletics’ biggest names. The monetization of social media outlets is an especially important aspect of the new regulation proposal. Top collegiate athletes, especially football and basketball players, often boast Instagram and Twitter followings of hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, and will be in for a financial windfall with regard to social media advertising and influencer opportunities.

However, in typical fashion, the NCAA did limit the scale of this potential compensation. “While student-athletes would be permitted to identify themselves by sport and school, the use of conference and school logos, trademarks or other involvement would not be allowed. The board emphasized that at no point should a university or college pay student-athletes for name, image and likeness activities,” read the statement, meaning all compensation for student athletes would have to originate from outside sources, and never from their universities.

It remains to be seen how the NCAA will approach the regulation of “boosters,” wealthy donors to the athletic departments and programs of Division I schools, who are often closely affiliated with members of the athletics department. These boosters might now be tempted to pay individual players for good performances or commitments behind the guise of advertisement or business opportunities, or serve as a financial liaison between the athletic department and athlete, a space that must be watched.

The NCAA’s change of heart is especially pertinent in the face of the implementation of the National Basketball Association’s new professional pathway for blue-chip high school basketball players through its development league, the G-League. The G-League offers a five-month program for these top high school recruits, for which they are paid up to $500,000 to play in a professional environment, without the additional commitments of an NCAA student athlete, such as classes, study halls and academic eligibility. Top 2020 recruits have already started to forego the NCAA for the G-League; most notably, consensus-top-three 2020 recruit Jalen Green, and, most recently, UCLA signee Daishen Nix, who broke his commitment to the university in the process. Financially incentivizing blue-chip basketball recruits is now essential to the NCAA’s mission if it does not want to continue this trend of losing top basketball talent to the G-League, as college basketball’s March Madness Tournament almost singlehandedly funds the NCAA’s existence, with annual revenues exceeding $700 million.

While the new regulations, expected to be finalized in January of 2021 and implemented at the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, will greatly benefit the stars of the lucrative Division I sports, there will not be many changes for the vast majority of the NCAA’s athletes. Although Division II and Division III committees will adopt the new rulings regarding compensation, it is unlikely that we will see the top goal-scorer on the Colorado College men’s lacrosse team pulling up to Worner in his new Ferrari coupe, courtesy of advertisement money. While a non-football or basketball Division I athlete may be able to benefit from the new ruling financially, the implications for Divisions II and III are minimal.

While the new direction of the NCAA’s approach towards compensation is certainly promising, there are many details and potential hang-ups that the Board of Governors will need to iron out over the next few months. During the outbreak of COVID-19, there is plenty of time for the Board to work on constructing a fair and attractive solution for its student athletes, one that incentivizes the collegiate experience without professionalizing the NCAA completely.

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