The NCAA will now allow players to profit. But what about recruits?

Pete Thamel

The NCAA has historically been an organization that takes action only when threatened. So consistently reactive with its rules, policies and procedures, the NCAA, for years, has seemingly tried to do as little as possible as to not jeopardize the flow of billions flowing into the organization and athletic departments.

A flurry of potential attacks have coaxed the latest and possibly historic change out of the NCAA. One threat came from a 20-something hustler, Christian Dawkins, who helped fast-talk the NCAA's cash cow – basketball – into a three-year federal legislative quandary. Another came from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who shepherded home Senate Bill 206 to unanimous bipartisan approval. That revealed one of the few things that can unite America during these fraught political times is agreement that the NCAA is antiquated and needs to change. When the copycat bills began appearing in other states, the NCAA found itself in the administrative and legislative version of surrender cobra.

That's what prompted the heaping helping of word gumbo the NCAA delivered Tuesday. The announcement is “historic” in a sense that an organization so historically sedentary in its policies declared it voted unanimously to "permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness." So, yes, a significant philosophical shift – one that's been years overdue – has occurred to potentially cut athletes a slice of the pie.

But wade through all the NCAA's jargon, and there's more self-congratulatory condiments than actual meat. One prominent Power Five athletic director summed up Tuesday's NCAA news this way: "They are waving a flag, saying that we hear you," the AD said in relation to the flurry of legislative activity around the country. "We know we need to get something done. It's complicated. Give us a minute."

Calls on Tuesday afternoon to athletic officials and coaches ended with one fundamental question that's going to determine how the NCAA's "Name, Image and Likeness" era unfolds: How will the "benefits" allowed from this rule change impact recruiting? Especially with the NCAA release saying the new rules should follow a guideline of: "Protect the recruiting environment and prohibit inducements to select, remain at, or transfer to a specific institution."

"Absolutely, the devil is in the details," Oliver Luck, a former NCAA executive who also served as the athletic director at West Virginia, told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday. "I can see a system where the association, conferences and universities regulate the student athletes on campus. It's so much more difficult to regulate the recruiting environment."

The complications and importance of the recruiting piece of this whole equation can't be overstated. Sources within college athletics leadership are in favor of trying to keep NIL out of the recruiting process, which could just be the semantics of dangling potential earning opportunities as opposed to cash deliverables upon singing.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) passes downfield against Texas A&M during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) passes downfield against Texas A&M during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

As one athletic director put it on Tuesday: "We're trying to figure out how to do this and not have it significantly impact the recruiting environment. The intention is good. I think they want to allow the Instagram influencer to make money or the gymnast with a clothing line. They want the star football player to be able to do a local commercial. They don't want it to be about talent acquisition."

The jaded folks around college sports will be quick to point out that talent acquisition has, for decades, been a cash business. The three federal cases that unfolded in the wake of the basketball scandal showcased the nuances and bidding wars in the black market, with both sneaker companies and coaches participating. Anyone who doesn't believe that happens in football in some form or fashion should sit down their friends Buddy the Elf and Kermit the Frog, and have a long chat about it.

As one high-ranking official with a major college football program put it to Yahoo Sports on Tuesday: "People say it would legalize what's been going on illegally for so many years."

The vexing part for NCAA officials, and why they are playing four corners without making specific decisions, is that it's much easier for them to attempt to legislate the campus environment than a recruiting environment. But this would be such a seismic change to the landscape that you could spend months discussing unintended consequences.

Take college basketball, for example. recruiting analyst Corey Evans said he generally feels the rich could get richer, but there's also the notion basketball-centric programs like Wichita State, Creighton and Murray State could offer more financial upside than a bigger brand school with less basketball zeal. He adds that geography will be important: "Imagine UNLV," he said. "It just matters what rules go into effect."

The biggest subsidiary issue from the recruiting piece would be the agent piece. If recruits are going to be allowed to essentially be bid on, to what extent will NCAA rules allow agents to guide them through the process? (Historically, agent rules have varied by sport.) Ask Rich Paul how the NCAA feels about agents. And, of course, ask NBA agents how they feel about NCAA.

No one is meeting for Happy Hour from either side anytime soon. There's a reason why the word “agent” was not among the 466 words in the NCAA’s release. These things are complex.

This much is certain. The biggest meaning of Tuesday's news is that schools are rushing to study up on potential avenues of what could be next. Could car dealers assure that every football recruit gets new wheels? Could that $100,000 corporate sponsorship in the stadium get divvied up to some kind of achievement bonus for players? Could the NCAA figure out a way to allow NLI rights to start when an athlete plays in the first game to stave off unintended consequences on the recruiting trail? Could recruits sue if they can't immediately cash in?

"In theory this all sounds great," said the athletic director. "The challenge is how you apply it and how it really works. My guess is that it ends up in court."

That makes sense. As we've learned for decades, it takes some type of legislation, legal action or crisis to force the NCAA to do anything. Now comes the hard part – figuring out all those details with the guns pointed at them.

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