I hate to break it to you, but the NCAA’s move to allow players to get sponsorship and endorsement income doesn’t immediately pave the way for the NCAA Football video game series to return.
The NCAA announced potential sweeping changes to its amateurism model on Wednesday. When ratified in January 2021, they’ll go into effect later that year. That means that you could see college football players shelling for car dealers and local restaurants during telecasts across the course of the 2021 season.
But you’re probably not going to be able to play with those players in an NCAA Football 22 game by EA Sports or any other game manufacturer.
“Anticipating a question, it was the group’s conclusion that group licenses, which would combine school trademarks with student-athlete [name, image, and likeness] in products like video games, replica jerseys and trading cards collections are unworkable in college sports,” Big East commissioner and NIL working group co-chairperson Val Ackerman said in an NCAA news conference Wednesday. “Largely because of the absence of the recognized bargaining agent to manage the curve of group NIL use on behalf of the student-athlete. The creation of a legal group license structure is a topic that may also be suitable for congressional intervention.”
The unspoken word in Ackerman’s quote above is “union.” There is no player union within college sports. The NCAA and its member schools want nothing to do with the formation and regulation of one. And they want little to no association with athletes making money off endorsements and sponsorships either.
As part of the conditions set forth on Wednesday, an athlete in a car commercial cannot be wearing team gear. Sure, you may know that football player as Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence — who, by the way, will assuredly be on an NFL roster in 2021 and freely taking endorsement money without NCAA regulation — but he wouldn’t be able to wear anything identifying Clemson in that commercial.
Allowing players to get money via direct associations with their schools could leave the NCAA open to claims that athletes are employees of their schools. Employees are considered professionals. We all know how far the NCAA and schools have gone to defend their model of amateurism.
While that definition of amateurism may be changing on a bigger scale than we ever could have expected 10 years ago, it’s also not disappearing. College and universities aren’t suddenly going to risk athletes being classified as professionals.
That’s why a video game isn’t coming back anytime soon without a set of specific federal guidelines regarding college athletics.
NCAA really wants Congress involved
The NCAA is clearly open to receiving federal help, however. The governing body again reiterated that it would look forward to guidance from Congress on Wednesday.
That thought process is simple and twofold. Federal guidelines regarding college athletics will help the NCAA’s standing in any future litigation regarding athlete rights. It’s much easier to legally challenge an NCAA rule than it is to challenge one that was crafted via federal legislation.
It also protects the NCAA from having to navigate the differences among varying state’s laws regarding athlete rights and compensation. As states followed California’s lead to grant athletes the ability to make money off their own names and images, the NCAA was quickly put into a position of having to deal with rules that could differ from state to state. Broader federal legislation paired with the NCAA’s current move toward athletes being able to make money from their likenesses can mitigate those state laws.
There are still a lot of things to work out
The report put forth by the NCAA’s NIL working group is 32 pages long and that January vote is set for a vote in less than eight months. But there’s still a lot that needs to be figured out between now and then.
NCAA president Mark Emmert and others on the call Wednesday admitted that there were numerous things that needed finalized specifics, like how boosters would be regulated.
A section of the report titled “concern over boosters” addresses the idea that a booster could be “primarily motivated by a desire to pay student-athletes for their athletics participation or performance” in making a sponsorship payment to an athlete. The section then also brings up the suggestion of potentially adopting “a regulatory system in which payments from third parties to student-athletes were compared, and perhaps limited, to a fair market value standard, while noting the difficulty in creating and maintaining such a system.”
Could the NCAA end up arbitrarily deciding what fair market value is for an athlete’s endorsement? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. This is the NCAA after all. If it does, that decision would be made through a hurried process fraught with loopholes and other complications to be done by January.
“The board yesterday was adamant that those guardrails have to be in place before anything can move forward, so between now and January, the divisions will probably be working collectively on a question like that and will try to ascertain what can be done to create a system that would allow people to determine whether or not something is a legitimate market function or otherwise,” Emmert said when asked about market values on Wednesday. “No one is denying that’s an extremely hard thing to do.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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