NCAA moves closer to allowing direct NIL payments to athletes

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 17: Charlie Baker, 
president of the NCAA, arrives for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled
NCAA president Charlie Baker continues to advocate for rule changes that will allow schools to make direct NIL payments to athletes. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — NCAA president Charlie Baker expects the Division I Council to soon begin work building a framework around the radical proposal he announced last month that would permit schools to offer athletes more benefits.

In a conversation with reporters, as well as his address to administrators gathered at the NCAA convention, Baker outlined the next steps for Project DI, the proposal he revealed in December that would allow schools to directly strike name, image and likeness deals and create a new subdivision for even more direct school pay to players.

The Division I Board of Directors is scheduled to meet Thursday in Phoenix, where they are expected to review the proposal and charge the Council with creating recommendations related to the first two items of Baker’s three-part plan, as Yahoo Sports reported last week.

Baker’s proposal would permit schools to (1) offer athletes unlimited educational enhancements and (2) make NIL deals with athletes. The third part of the plan, to be explored after the first two, calls for the creation of a new FBS subdivision in which schools will be required to put into a fund a minimum of $30,000 annually per athlete for half of a school’s athletes.

Asked if there’s any reason the Council would not take on Project DI, Baker shook his head and said, “No.”

The undertaking of such a monumental change — the NCAA permitting direct pay — is a massive endeavor, but Baker is hoping for an accelerated timeline. According to a timeline in documents obtained by Yahoo Sports, the Council will have final recommendations to the DI Board of Directors in June, and an adoption could happen as soon as August, though that is only a suggested timeline.

The third part of the proposal — a new subdivision — will then be explored by the Council for, potentially, adoption at next year’s convention in January 2025.

Baker expects his proposal to undergo changes during this process.

“It is a table-setter,” he said. “I’ve worked in government a long time, and in government you file a bill. You don’t expect to get it back the same way you filed it. You don’t think it’s written on a stone tablet.”

The first conversation is around additional education enhancements as well as the NIL piece, which will entail a “conversation about where NIL belongs,” Baker said. His proposal would permit schools to bring NIL agreements within their walls. That means schools having the ability to buy the exclusive rights of their players’ NIL, a move that might eventually remove collectives from the space, he acknowledged.

Baker hopes the framework around the two items — educational benefits and NIL deals — will be made to require schools to work within Title IX, the federal law requiring universities to offer equal benefits to women and men athletes. In the NIL collective space, Baker says 99% of the money is going to men athletes — a claim some collectives insist is not true.

The purpose of the first two items in his plan is to create a more controlled and level playing field for men and women.

“I do worry a lot about what’s going to happen to women’s sports if this whole thing doesn’t find some way inside the four walls of schools,” he said.

How Title IX is applied in the NIL space is a somewhat murky issue. Baker suggests that the outcome of a lawsuit in Oregon over Title IX and NIL will bring some clarity. The lingering question: To satisfy Title IX, do men and women athletes need to earn the same amount of NIL money, or do men and women athletes need to earn the same amount of NIL opportunities in participation?

“The [Title IX] terminology is more about equal participation,” Baker said. “It’s not so much about equal amounts.”

He hopes for more clarity from the Department of Education soon.

In order for any of this to work, though, Baker needs assistance from Congress, an entity the NCAA has been lobbying for five years to no avail. Lawmakers would need to create a “special status,” he said, for college athletes to be deemed students and not employees — an important piece, given the ongoing legal cases that could soon deem athletes employees.

Over the past two months, optimism has grown within college athletics that lawmakers specifically in the U.S. Senate are progressing toward a compromise, though details are murky. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have been engrossed in discussions over legislation for several weeks now.

“You would need some sort of protection and special status from Congress, but if a school buys the NIL rights to a player, I honestly have trouble understanding why they should be an employee,” Baker said. “That’s a contract, just like any other contract, between two parties.”

Baker believes the proposal is “important” to the NCAA’s lobbying effort on Capitol Hill and “gives Congress some idea of what something might look like if they would choose to support us on that.”

The reveal of Baker’s proposal last month, while a surprise to many, was mostly met with fanfare for its progressive and bold approach, but some questioned both its rollout — few knew the intimate details — and its sustainability as a long-term solution to the college athletics compensation issue.

In light of criticism of the proposal, Baker quipped, “The one thing I’m pretty sure about this is if we don’t do anything, nothing will happen. My view is to do things.”

The $30,000 figure created some sticker shock through the industry and worried administrators, given the NCAA’s ongoing litigation in the House antitrust lawsuit as well as others. Baker refuses to believe the figure will impact the case or a potential settlement in the case.

“I don’t believe that this organization discussing and debating these issues in the grand scheme of things, particularly given the approach to applying this to enhanced educational benefits, will change anything in the way of court proceedings," he said.

Separately Wednesday, the DI Council adopted expected “protections” for athletes, including the creation of an agent registry, suggested standardized contracts for NIL deals and a database for consumption of aggregate NIL deals. The council also approved a recommendation that permits more communication between a collective and a school.