NCAA takes step toward determining if new tier of Division I where athletes can be paid is possible

NCAA President Charlie Baker speaks at his first state of college sports address at the association's annual convention Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — The NCAA on Thursday took the first step toward determining whether President Charlie Baker's idea to create a new subdivision in which schools directly pay athletes can become a reality.

The Division I Board of Directors asked policy makers to evaluate a proposal Baker made last month in a letter to members.

Baker said he wants the association to create a new tier of Division I sports for highly resourced schools that would require them to offer at least half their athletes a payment of at least $30,000 per year through a trust fund. The first-year president also proposed allowing all Division I schools to offer unlimited educational benefits to athletes and to enter into name, image and likeness licensing deals with athletes.

“I can’t say where it’s going to go or how it's going to end, but I think it’s an important conversation to have,” said Georgia President Jere Morehead, chairman of the D-I board.

The proposal now goes to the Division I Council, a group made up mostly of athletic directors and conferences commissioners.

“This will give the D-I Council the opportunity to involve (other) conference commissioners, athletic directors, college presidents, and then come back to us with updates as they will plan to do at our April meeting,” Morehead said.

Baker has been adamant about framing the proposal as just a conversation starter. He has no power to enact legislation.

The council's role is to try to determine if and how Baker's idea could work while also gauging support for the idea among membership.

Morehead stressed that no matter what the NCAA does to change the model for college athletics, especially at the very top where high-profile sports such as football and basketball generate billions of dollars for schools, the enterprise still needs a federal law to provide some antitrust protection.

“Congress has the opportunity to do some things right now to help stabilize the collegiate environment,” Morehead said. “There are many bills that have been introduced or about to be introduced. And we’re really at a critical juncture for Congress to do some things. And if having this conversation about a new model helps get us to the finish line, that's important.”

Republican members of Congress Cathy McMorris of Washington and Gus Bilirakis of Florida announced Thursday they have scheduled a hearing for Jan. 18 on college athletics and NIL in which they expect Baker to appear. It will be the 11th hearing on Capitol Hill since 2020 on college athletics, and the second in four months for Baker.

The NCAA has been asking for help from Congress for years in regulating NIL compensation after a patchwork of state laws were passed and the association — fearful of litigation — decided to take a mostly hands-off approach.

Now the NCAA is getting more involved. On Wednesday, the council approved a package of new NIL rules aimed at creating some transparency for athletes and schools. The NCAA's plan is to encourage athletes to report their NIL deals in an effort to build a database that can be used to inform decisions. The NCAA also wants to have a registry of agents and companies that work with athletes and have some standardized components of an NIL contract.

A separate proposal still being worked on by the council — similar to one of Baker's items — would bring NIL activities in-house, allowing schools to facilitate deals between athletes and companies. Schools would still not be permitted to directly pay athletes for NIL or use it as a recruiting inducement.

That seems to contradict Baker's vision of a new subdivision.

Florida deputy athletic director Lynda Tealer, chairwoman for the council's NIL working group, said Baker's plan for schools to compensate athletes would likely require some congressional intervention to prevent the athletes from being deemed employees of their institutions.

Tealer said the board asks the council to take up Baker's proposal in its entirety while also considering the possibility of breaking it up into individual pieces.

“So it'll end up with a council to flesh it out a little bit more and then ultimately come back to the board for approval,” she said.


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