NCAA takes step toward allowing players to profit off likeness, but will anything come of it?

The NCAA has formed a committee to study allowing players to profit off their name, image and likeness. (AP file photo)
The NCAA has formed a committee to study allowing players to profit off their name, image and likeness. (AP file photo)

Is the NCAA taking the first creeping steps outside the ancient and heavily fortified walls of Castle Amateurism?

Indications are yes, given the intriguing (albeit understated) news from the association Tuesday: It has named a working group to “examine issues … related to student-athlete name, image and likeness.” While declaring that the group “will not consider any concepts that could be construed as payment for participation in college sports,” the fact that the NCAA is willing to discuss the matter at all is significant.

Could Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence lead a new generation of student-athletes being permissibly compensated in some fashion for autographs, jersey sales or endorsements? It’s too early to tell, and that might be too fast a timetable. But depending on resistance and red tape, it doesn’t seem to be out of the question.

The collegiate model as we know it could be moving toward substantive change from within, before it is forced from without.

The working group is co-chaired by a pair of heavy hitters within the collegiate realm: Big East commissioner Val Ackerman and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith — Smith also was a member of the Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on College Basketball last year. Other members of a 19-member panel across all three NCAA divisions include Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Georgia president Jere Morehead, Georgetown president John J. DeGioia, Colorado athletic director Rick George, Virginia athletic director Carla Williams and three yet-to-be-named current athletes.

In the NCAA statement, Ackerman said the group “will examine the NCAA’s position on name, image and likeness benefits and potentially propose rule modifications tethered to education. We believe the time is right for these discussions and look forward to a thorough assessment of the many complexities involved in this area.”

It may not go further than this committee, and it may stop short of what some reformers desire. (“The group’s work will not result in paying students as employees,” Smith said.) But the fact that the NCAA has let down its drawbridge, crossed the moat and dared to formally consider name, image and likeness is a dramatic shift.

Since the modern iteration of the NCAA took shape in the early 1950s, the association has held nothing so dear as the notion that college athletes have no business making money off of being college athletes. As the profitability of football and basketball has soared — to the point of literally reconfiguring the map, in terms of conference affiliation — the ability of those athletes to share in the revenue gusher has remained stagnant. The NCAA has legislated against paying the players, policed it, prosecuted offenders and fought repeatedly in court to prevent it.

They have also lost repeatedly in court in recent years, which gives this the feel of a come-to-Jesus-at-gunpoint moment. The O’Bannon ruling of 2015 — which dealt directly with name, image and likeness issues — coupled with the Alston vs. NCAA ruling in March, have whittled away at the NCAA’s legal authority to maintain the status quo. The rebels are at the castle walls, and they’re well-armed.

So this may be less an act of conviction than an act of capitulation. But whatever. The end result could start to reshape the economics of college sports.

Not many people took note of it, but Emmert tipped this off at the Final Four last month.

“There is very likely to be in the coming months even more discussion about the whole notion of name, image and likeness [and] how it fits into the current legal framework,” he said in Minneapolis. “Similarly, there needs to be a lot of conversation about how, if it was possible, how it would be practical. Is there a way to make that work? Nobody has been able to come up with a resolution of that yet."

Will college football stars like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence soon be able to profit off their own name, image and likeness? (AP)
Will college football stars like Clemson's Trevor Lawrence soon be able to profit off their own name, image and likeness? (AP)

This working group, it appears, will be tasked with tackling that resolution.

Rice’s commission took a lot of heat last April for basically sidestepping the name, image and likeness issue, though in their defense they were hamstrung by the ongoing Alston case. Last May, Rice took a stand that may well end up being echoed by the NCAA membership.

“We believe that students ought to be able to benefit from name, image and likeness but you can’t decide a program until you know the legal parameters,” Rice told USA Today in May 2018. The parameters have since taken shape.

Could an NIL payment system of some kind be ripe for abuse? Of course. But you know what else is ripe for abuse? The current system. That was made flagrantly obvious in the federal college basketball corruption trials.

How soon could new NIL bylaws be in place? The working group is expected to provide an update to the NCAA Board of Governors in August, with a final report due in October. Presumably any recommendations would have to be ratified by the membership at the NCAA convention in January 2020. It may take time for any such legislation to be phased in, however.

No matter what, it probably would be too late to create an NIL windfall for Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who would seem likely to turn pro after this upcoming football season. It’s potentially not too late for Lawerence, who led Clemson to the national title in January as a true freshman and couldn’t be selected in the NFL draft before 2021. But everyone coming thereafter could benefit.

Who knows? Maybe a compelling NIL compensation package would even slow the expected flood of prep-to-pro basketball players if/when the NBA lowers its minimum-age rule from 19 to 18 in time for the 2022 draft. If a player wants to get paid but doesn’t yet feel ready for the rigor of 82 games and life on the road with grown men, perhaps going to Duke becomes an attractive option.

That may not be enough to sway a potential No. 1 pick like Emoni Bates, but if you are a guy who may end up in the G League right out of high school, then spending time playing high-major college ball and making some income might be the best of all worlds.

Or it could be that three key words in Ackerman’s statement — “tethered to education” — implies a graduation component to being compensated. This harkens back to a plan championed by current NFL quarterback Josh Rosen that I wrote about last July, in which college athletes could earn money for name, image and likeness that then would be set aside in an account to be accessed once they graduate.

Ultimately, whatever happens could owe itself to the mingling of two former UCLA minds: Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit meets Josh Rosen’s plan and the result is a new era in college athletics.

Nobody knows how this will turn out. But the fact that the NCAA is willing to acknowledge the siege upon Castle Amateurism, and try to find a solution to a decades-old problem, is major news in college athletics.

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