Pay for Play: Why name, image and likeness compensation for NCAA stars is a good thing

It’s about time college athletes can monetize their popularity.

“Pay for Play” is a column by Wyatt Allsup about the role of money in sports.

The NCAA announced Wednesday that it is suspending its rules prohibiting college athletes from making money through sponsorships and various other means. Starting Thursday, athletes across the country will be able to use the rights to their name, image and likeness (NIL) for profit, and the door will open to compensation for college athletes, for better or worse.

I expect it to be for the better.

While it’s a much older conversation, more and more questions about such compensation have circled around the sports world since September 2019, when California became the first state to pass NIL legislation that supersedes the NCAA’s rules that prevent athletes from taking advantage of their personal brands.

Since then, many states have adopted similar legislation to allow their student athletes to make money from their NIL. As of Thursday, athletes can act in accord with the laws of their state or participate in any NIL activities without violating NCAA rules in states that don’t have their own legislation.

Some critics have concerns about fairness; others think it’s a slippery slope to college sports becoming pro sports, with athletes being paid directly by universities. Will quarterbacks at big schools be the only ones to benefit? Will every great high school athlete choose to play at athletic powerhouses like USC or Texas, creating an imbalance?

No doubt, it will not be perfect at first; it will be chaotic and it will take time for the NCAA and the federal government to jointly create a more permanent and comprehensive solution. But allowing celebrity athletes to make an extra buck from signing autographs or from jersey sales that are already lining everyone else’s pockets isn’t going to hurt anyone.

The NIL debate goes back to O’Bannon v. NCAA, an antitrust class-action lawsuit which argued against the NCAA’s use of an athlete’s NIL to make money for itself, through things like video games, which sparked this specific case. The resulting ruling in 2014 was a small win for college athletes and a small loss for the NCAA, whose amateurism model was threatened for the first time.

All that really changed was that schools would be allowed to offer athletes scholarships covering full cost of attendance expenses in addition to just tuition, as NCAA scholarships had always been. Athletes still were not allowed to monetize their own NIL, because they were still amateurs to the NCAA. No laws challenged that fact, even though that was one of the big-picture goals of the O’Bannon case.

Then in 2019, California’s colloquially known “Fair Pay to Play” act, originally intended to take effect in 2023, reignited the conversation and got the ball rolling on NIL legislation. California’s precedent culminated in the NCAA giving in with its decision on Wednesday.

(While it is not directly related to the NIL conversation, it’s worth noting that the Supreme Court affirmed on June 21 that the NCAA cannot prevent athletes from receiving education-related monetary benefits, like compensation for laptops, from universities. This is another win for college athletes, but its impact will likely be small in the short run.)

So what are the concerns orbiting college athletes’ newfound ability to profit off the NIL they have worked hard to build, and are they even relevant?

Many of the concerns are trivial. I’ve heard an argument that 18-year-old college athletes don’t understand how to manage their finances and taxes, thus they shouldn’t make money while they are student athletes. Seriously?

Maybe the most obvious concern, and one that is actually worth entertaining, is the recruiting advantages that big schools in big markets will have over smaller ones, creating a top-heavy and uncompetitive playing field.

Athletes will not yet be able to receive compensation directly from schools, but larger schools tend to have wealthy boosters with the resources to organize more lucrative opportunities for an athlete, should he or she choose one of these schools.

Is that potentially a big incentive for a high school basketball recruit to choose a school like Texas over one like Gonzaga? Maybe, but college sports are already horribly imbalanced: Alabama has won five of the last 10 college football championships, with Clemson and Ohio State regularly appearing in or winning championship games as well.

Some opponents of NIL compensation would also argue that only football players and maybe high profile basketball players will benefit from it, so it’s not fair to other athletes. Even within an individual sport, a quarterback is a much more recognizable face than an offensive lineman.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Quarterbacks create the most value for their football team, which, at many schools, supports the entirety of the athletic department while every other sports team creates a net loss for the department.

Furthermore, a football player turning a profit doesn’t hurt a baseball player.

One other major argument is that NIL compensation leads to the deterioration of the amateurism that has defined college sports for decades. More specifically, some say this is the first step towards colleges “paying” athletes.

Schools paying athletes directly is even more complex than NIL compensation, and that’s a conversation for later down the road, where the discussion of fairness to athletes in less popular sports is perhaps more relevant.

But all of this is really about the one characteristic which defines the NCAA’s unique business model: amateurism.

The NCAA likes everyone to buy into the idea that college athletes are amateurs, and that they’re students first, so they shouldn’t be compensated. That idea wouldn’t hold ground in any other industry, as the Supreme Court pointed out in last week’s ruling. Wednesday’s announcement from the NCAA indicates a changing definition of what college sports are.

As college sports have turned into a massive television product, it has become increasingly ridiculous to suggest that athletes deserve zero percent of the pie. During the last full year of college sports, 2019, the NCAA earned $1.18 billion in revenue. Across all NCAA athletic departments, that number was $18.9 billion.

It’s time to quit pretending that the NCAA’s amateurism model is legitimate. There’s nothing pure and amateur about college sports anymore. The athletes are the ones who drive the product, while the media, universities and the NCAA rake in the cash. Finally, athletes will reap the benefits of the hours of work they put in to compete at a high level.