On Tuesday, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) made headlines when its governing board voted to “start the process of modifying its rule to allow college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses ‘in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.’” This change comes on the heels of California passing the Fair Pay for Play Act into law. This legislation, set to take effect in 2023, would prevent the NCAA from prohibiting college athletes from profiting off of their names, images, and likenesses. I recently wrote a JSEL blog post on the implications of this law on EA Sports’ NCAA Football video game franchise returning; check that out here.
Chris Vannini, a reporter for The Athletic, cautioned on Twitter that mainstream media headlines are overstating what occurred. This news is a big deal, but the NCAA has only agreed to start a process of modifying its rule—a great deal remains to be determined. Key thought leaders in the sports business world, like Professor Andrew Zimbalist, have homed in on a specific clause in the NCAA’s announcement: the new rule will be created “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”
What does that mean? We don’t yet know. The “collegiate model” tends to point to the preservation of amateurism in college sports, which some may find incompatible with the concept of compensation altogether. The decision makers are sure to haggle over how the NCAA can reconcile amateurism with compensation in the new rules, consistent with the direction that this vote has given them. This is not the last we will hear of this question.
A recent post on Inside Higher Ed highlighted an interesting division on the political right regarding college athlete compensation following the NCAA vote. U.S. Senator Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, tweeted: “If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to ‘cash in’ to income taxes.”
U.S. Representative Mark Walker, also a North Carolina Republican, responded to his colleague in the upper chamber: “If scholarships are income, that makes them employees, not student-athletes. This isn’t about income. It’s about basic rights that every other American has to their own name.” Rep. Walker is the author of a bill that would amend the Internal Revenue Code to “prevent qualified amateur sports organizations from restricting student-athletes from using or being compensated for use of their name, image, and likeness.” Andrew Distell covered the Walker bill for JSEL back in April 2019. Walker’s point seems to be that the NCAA’s current model is anti-free market.
The NCAA vote likely buys the organization some time to figure out the issue of athlete compensation on its own terms, but the clock is certainly ticking. We are not out of the woods just yet.
Eli Nachmany is a Sports Highlight Contributor for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law and a current first year student at Harvard Law School (Class of 2022).