Which is why I found myself in a strange position reading last week’s letter from the commissioners of the Power Five conferences asking Congress to pass a law allowing college athletes to use their names, images and likenesses to make money while representing their 65 schools.
I am usually dead set against congressional involvement in sports. Elected officials should have far more important things to do.
I am just as skeptical about any position taken by any Power Five administrators, including presidents, commissioners and athletic directors. They all have the same job: make as much money as they can while convincing people that their first concern is the “student-athlete.”
That’s why I almost laughed out loud last week reading Notre Dame President John Jenkins’s New York Times op-ed explaining why it was important to get students back on campus in August even though there would certainly be risk involved.
After finishing the story, I sent a text to a friend at Notre Dame: “Translation: Football season opens August 29th.”
So when the commissioners reached out to Congress for help on the NIL issue, I wondered why. Not that long ago, they were all in step with NCAA President Mark Emmert in declaring that allowing “student-athletes” to make money off their names, images and likenesses would destroy college athletics.
The beginning of the end for the NCAA’s “code of the amateur athlete” came when California passed a bill in September that would allow college athletes to be paid for their NIL rights. Emmert and the commissioners flailed briefly at the law — Emmert at one point threatened to declare athletes from California schools ineligible for NCAA championships — but had to acquiesce when Congress and other state legislatures began discussing passing similar laws.
Now Emmert and the commissioners are pushing the fairy tale that they are all for athletes’ NIL rights.
And yet despite my feelings about Congress and sports, here’s the bottom line: Congress should pass NIL legislation.
Why? First, because one thing everyone agrees on is that you can’t have 50 different laws in 50 states. There needs to be one set of rules for everyone.
Second, even though the commissioners don’t really care about this, if the NCAA is left to come up with a rule, it will have so many caveats, the players probably will end up owing their schools money before all is said and done. While all the administrators now say they favor granting athletes these rights, they add, less loudly, “within the parameters of amateurism.”
Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
So anything that takes the NCAA out of any process can’t be bad.
Of course, the NCAA will lobby Congress for a law that gives the athletes as little wiggle room as possible — and makes clear that the colleges will never have to pay athletes anything. No tobacco endorsements, no alcohol endorsements — fine. What about sneaker and apparel companies? What about betting sites? What about gas-guzzling cars? Political candidates? Where are the lines drawn?
And then there’s the whole booster question. Nothing in the history of college sports has been a more persistent or insidious issue than the role of boosters, many of whom have tremendous power at schools because of how much money they donate. It isn’t just at the schools with histories of providing impermissible benefits; it’s almost everywhere. If Duke’s boosters had their way in 1983, Mike Krzyzewski never would have coached a fourth season. Fortunately for Krzyzewski — and those boosters — Athletic Director Tom Butters stood by his basketball coach. In return for that, he received a number of death threats.
Not that anyone ever takes college athletics too seriously.
How then does Congress regulate how much boosters can pay athletes to endorse their car dealerships, restaurants or gas stations? Not to mention how much the multimillionaire booster can pay the star football or basketball player for stopping by to say hi to his friends after a game.
It’s worth remembering that this law — or rule, whichever comes first — will affect just a handful of athletes. Very few nonrevenue sports athletes are going to get paid for their NIL rights. There aren’t going to be a lot of offensive linemen or linebackers getting paid. The guy setting hard screens or coming off the bench isn’t going to get rich, either. Nor is the star field hockey or soccer player.
In a very real sense, this is much ado about not very much. The only reason college athletes should get paid is because it’s unfair to prohibit them from making money when they are helping their school make millions and millions every year.
So let Congress spend some time — if this pandemic ever slows to the point where we have a new normal we can learn to live with — and make a law that makes sense for everyone. And let’s not think for one second this has anything to do with helping “student-athletes.”
It’s all about the money: The commissioners want to calm the waters as quickly as they can on the issue and get back to playing football.
Notre Dame-Navy is Sept. 5. You can bet kickoff that day will make Jenkins and his fellow presidents smile when the television dollars again are flowing — none of which will have to be shared with the athletes putting themselves at risk. The players’ ability to make money is now, in the administrators’ view, up to Congress.