College basketball’s latest hero has confidence enough to try anything once and a smile bright enough to take over Hollywood. Now, with the NCAA’s blessing, she’s about to try.
Arike Ogunbowale, the buzzer-beating star of Notre Dame’s national championship team, is set to join the all-athlete lineup of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.” But she’s different from the competition’s other nine contestants in one significant way: The 21-year old needed a waiver from the NCAA to appear on the show and accept any benefits, including prize money, that come with her participation.
Granting that waiver appeared to mark a stark shift for the NCAA, which for decades has held fast to a rule that athletes cannot be compensated because of the “publicity, reputation, fame or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletics ability,” according to the controversial NCAA Bylaw 12.4.1.
Ogunbowale, a junior, is eligible to participate and receive compensation because the show is “unrelated to her basketball abilities,” the NCAA said in a statement. (“Dancing with the Stars” declined to answer specific questions about participant compensation. Its new season premieres April 30.)
But experts who study the NCAA see a clear bending of the rules in Ogunbowale’s case. She hit two buzzer-beating three pointers in the Final Four: the first to upset Connecticut in a national semifinal and the second to knock off Mississippi State in the championship game. That star turn is what landed her on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where she met Kobe Bryant. It’s what landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And it’s what earned her a “Dancing with the Stars” invitation.
“The problem here with Ogunbowale is, where do we delineate her fame dancing versus her fame as a basketball player for Notre Dame?” said Thomas Baker III, a professor of sport management at the University of Georgia. “If she doesn’t hit that last-second shot, then she’s not famous, and she’s not on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ ”
Baker and other NCAA compliance experts say the Ogunbowale decision could signal that college sports’ governing body is ready to begin allowing student-athletes to profit from their own names, images and likenesses, a recommendation considered by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a think tank that studies college sports.
“Universities derive enormous benefit from young men and women who do not share equitably in the value they create,” wrote Gabe Feldman, a law professor at Tulane University, in a 2016 policy paper presented to the commission. “The rapid and largely unconstrained escalation of the commercialization of college sports makes it increasingly difficult to justify the ever-expanding divide between the student-athlete, paid only with restrictive, in-kind benefits or expense reimbursement, and the business of the sports they play.”
Allowing college athletes to profit from their names would mark an unprecedented NCAA policy shift, which could open the door for those athletes to be featured in television programs, advertisements and endorsements, things college coaches do with regularity.
“I think this shows that name, image and likeness has to happen,” said B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sport management at Ohio University. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Such a rule change would have kept the NCAA and its member institutions out of litigation involving current and former student-athletes who have tried to retain their eligibility after using their name, image and likeness for commercial purposes.
Central Florida place kicker Donald De La Haye, for example, lost his eligibility in 2017 after he profited from ad sales on videos he posted to YouTube. He chose to leave the UCF football team to continue posting to the website, and sued the university in February.
The NCAA has placed restrictions on Ogunbowale that limit her involvement with the show and her potential to build her brand. She is not allowed to appear in promotional materials for the show, including commercials, according to the NCAA’s statement. She didn’t join other contestants during a group appearance on “Good Morning America” last week. Show handicappers have already wondered whether the NCAA’s limits will hurt her chances.
And the NCAA could turn down future requests by arguing that Ogunbowale is not endorsing “Dancing with the Stars” by appearing on the program, but instead is participating in a “personal growth experience” by learning how to ballroom dance, said Barbara Osborne, a professor of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina.
But the opportunity for the Notre Dame star to enroll in that “personal growth experience” is still inextricably linked to her athletic reputation, Osborne said.
“The whole, ‘this is not endorsing a product, this is a chance for personal growth,’ I can buy that,” Osborne said. “But you can’t separate the person from the player, because they’re the same thing. They would not have asked her on the athlete version of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ if she was not an athlete.”
More likely than the NCAA shifting its stance on athlete compensation is the body’s desire to capitalize on Ogunbowale’s popularity and the success of the recent women’s tournament, experts said. The NCAA is allowing Ogunbowale to make money off her fame because it serves a larger purpose for the rest of the NCAA in boosting the image of women’s basketball, Ridpath said.
But when other athletes with larger personal brands — like college football’s top quarterbacks or or men’s basketball’s one-and-done players — ask for similar exemptions, it could leave the NCAA in a vulnerable position.
“I’m certain there will be other shows and other things out there that will want to do the same thing,” Ridpath said, “and then the NCAA has a virtual gun to their head, and what decision are they going to make?”
That’s what Ed O’Bannon has been arguing for years. Since his lawsuit against the NCAA in 2009, he has been a leader in the crusade to allow collegiate athletes to retain commercial rights for their names, images and likenesses. He was a member of the 1995 UCLA men’s basketball team whose players were later featured on video games, but they did not get compensation for their participation.
To O’Bannon, author of the book, “Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA,” Ogunbowale’s arrangement to appear on the show looks like the first major step the NCAA has willingly taken to empower its athletes on the open market.
“She earned it. This is her time. This is her moment. This is her summer,” O’Bannon said. “All her hard work and tears and blood and everything, she laid it all out there on the floor. Now she gets an opportunity to taste the labor of her hard work. She deserves to profit off of her own likeness.”
That doesn’t mean, though, the four-week show won’t be stressful, although perhaps not as stressful as Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament run. The first episode airs a week before final exams begin.
A Notre Dame spokesman said Ogunbowale’s dance partner, Gleb Savchenko, accompanied by a camera crew, has relocated to South Bend, Ind., for rehearsals. The show’s wardrobe department has FaceTimed Ogunbowale to discuss costumes. The pair will fly each week to Los Angeles, paid for by the television network, to perform.