Go further: College athletes will receive money from jersey sales. They will receive money for endorsing restaurants or sneakers. And it will seem normal. Why? Because it’s just and right. There will be a time when our children say, “Wait, ESPN paid around $7.3 billion to televise the College Football Playoff over its first dozen years, and the athletes got none of it?”
Somehow, after a dozen years of litigation and lobbying, the NCAA hasn’t realized — or, more accurately, hasn’t admitted — the inevitability that the cogs who crank a $15 billion engine will be greased. Who among us believes that, in a decade, college sports will be governed the way they are now, and the athletes will be compensated the way they are now, which for so many is at a fraction of their market value? It’s inconceivable. So why not push for change rather than resist it? Why not start with a basic question that the NCAA rarely asks: What’s best and what’s fair for the athlete rather than the institution?
And if the organization charged with leading college athletics would rather be obstinate and obtuse, thinking more of the century behind than the century ahead, then there’s a more fundamental question: Is there a better way to govern college sports than the NCAA provides?
This all comes up because … well, it could come up on any day of any year going back decades because it’s so illogical that it makes the brain ache. But it comes up now because of two developments last week: an announcement by EA Sports that it would reintroduce its popular college football game to the market, and new legislation in Congress that proposes federal standards for college athletes to be able to profit off their own names, images and likenesses.
Start with the former. After issuing the last of its annual “NCAA Football” games in 2013 — with a former player who turned pro, Denard Robinson of Michigan, on the cover — EA Sports essentially bowed out of the business. It’s obvious to anyone, gamer or not — that the best version of such a game would include players with the skill sets and appearances of college football stars. Want to play as Alabama in “NCAA Football 20?” Well, that should be Devonta Smith wearing No. 6, hauling in passes from Mac Jones wearing No. 10.
Yet because the game opened EA up to endless litigation, it stopped production in 2013. There was a line of thinking at the time that this was good, because the athletes’ rights were being protected. There would no longer be versions of players being used for the commercial gain of others while the real-life human beings received no compensation.
But that’s backward. What the NCAA, if it had any ability to think about athletes first, should have sought was progress rather than suppression. Why not find a way for the players to profit off the best version of such a game — a game with actual players on actual teams? EA would have been happy to cut the players in on some of the cash; the company’s statement at the time said in part, “We follow rules that are set by the NCAA — but those rules are being challenged by some student-athletes.”
Translation: The athletes are right, and we would love to make a game that allows them a cut of the action, but their archaic overlords won’t allow it, so we’re out.
Now, the climate is changing. Yeah, in announcing the return of the game — which, notably, cuts the NCAA out of the picture — EA said it will start with generic players, in case the rules haven’t changed by the time the new game hits the market in a couple of years. But come on. Would the company leap back in if it didn’t think the best version of the game was likely, because the rules would be changing? Six states have passed laws that would grant college athletes NIL rights. Read the tea leaves, NCAA. EA Sports sure has.
The best way to make this transition seamless, of course, would be to pass federal legislation. That’s what Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) — a former volleyball player at Georgetown — introduced last week, the latest in a series of congressional efforts to modernize these rules. It’s the most progressive proposal yet — completely cutting the NCAA out of regulating athletes’ attempts at profiting off their talents and affording players the right, at least on this issue, to collectively bargain in an effort to make money.
“Big-time college athletics look no different than professional leagues,” Murphy said in a statement announcing the legislation, “and it’s time for us to stop denying the right of college athletes to make money off their talents. … It’s simple: This is about restoring athletes’ ownership over the use of their own names and likeness. They own their brand, not their school or the NCAA.”
Think about the wrongs that could be righted here. North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams, for instance, makes between $250,000 and $340,000 annually from Nike because his team wears their shoes while Williams wears loafers. Shouldn’t, um, the Tar Heels players with the sneakers on their feet be cut in on that cash? Or, even better: Shouldn’t each player be able to ask competing shoe companies how much it’s worth for him to lace up their brands? How much might Zion Williamson, in a single season at Duke, have been able to make for his family?
And take the college football video game. In producing its wildly popular NFL game, EA cuts two deals — one with the league so it can use team logos and stadiums, and one with the players’ union so it can build characters that represent each player. Through the Collegiate Licensing Company, EA has already signed up more than 100 Football Bowl Subdivision schools — so Clemson can play in its correct shade of orange at Death Valley with the proper tiger paw on its helmet. It’s a recruiting tool and helps with a school’s cool factor, and let’s face it: If Alabama’s in, Auburn’s not sitting out.
But what should simultaneously be happening: the game maker working with a group that represents college athletes so they can develop a product that depicts those players — and pay them for it.
The NCAA? If it had any sense, it would see the money on the table and try to get a cut of it — while also including the players. Yet for all the progress the group says it’s trying to make in modernizing its NIL rules, it has a chronic inability to lead. Here are the association’s accomplishments from the past two months: petitioning the Supreme Court to review a lower court’s decision that the NCAA can’t cap education-related pay and benefits for athletes in Division I football and basketball programs; and punting on a planned vote to grant (limited) NIL rights to athletes.
This is not a group that has athletes’ wellness at the forefront of its mind. It is a group that is interested in maintaining the status quo. The status quo, though, is unfair, and therefore is on the way out. Will the NCAA eventually go with it?