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NCAA softens on allowing college athletes to be paid, but provides few specifics

NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks during a news conference at the 2018 Final Four. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Amid rising pressure from lawmakers to permit college athletes to profit from their fame, the NCAA announced Tuesday it would consider rules changes that would allow college athletes “the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.”

The statement and an accompanying NCAA “questions and answers” explanation represented the organization’s first acknowledgment of a willingness to discuss permitting individual athletes to trade on their fame. However, it contained few specifics on how doing so could be reconciled with “the collegiate model” that prohibits such benefits and likely won’t quell the organization’s critics or pacify elected officials pushing for change.

The NCAA also restated its opposition to a state law in California that will permit college athletes to sign sponsorship deals, charge for autographs, and earn money through other similar opportunities beginning in 2023.

“The California law and other proposed measures ultimately would lead to pay for play and turn college athletes into employees,” the NCAA said Tuesday after a meeting of its leadership at Emory University in Atlanta. “This directly contradicts the mission of college sports within higher education — that student-athletes are students first and choose to play a sport they love against other students while earning a degree.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert was unavailable for an interview Tuesday.

“As a national governing body, the NCAA is uniquely positioned to modify its rules to ensure fairness and a level playing field for student-athletes,” Emmert said in a news release. “The board’s action today creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”

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In a phone interview hours before Tuesday’s announcement, Tom McMillen, chief executive of the Lead1 Association, which represents the 130 athletic directors and programs at the NCAA’s top division, said the majority of his members support change that would allow some form of name, image and likeness payments for athletes. McMillen cautioned, however, that there are many unanswered questions, and said it is unlikely change happens before 2021.

“This is not going to get solved overnight. This is going to go on for several years,” McMillen said.

At a meeting in September attended by dozens of athletic directors from across the country, McMillen said, many expressed willingness to allow college athletes to make money similar to how Olympic athletes can, but expressed concern about potential legal implications. The NCAA and its member conferences have emerged largely victorious from federal antitrust lawsuits thanks to judicial rulings that have allowed the NCAA to prohibit payments that are not “tethered to education.”

What’s unclear, McMillen said, is how to tie new revenue opportunities for athletes to education, so as to not make the NCAA or conferences vulnerable to more litigation that would seek an open market for college athletes — essentially, allowing schools to enter into cash bidding wars for top high school recruits.

“Somewhere along the way it has to be tethered to education,” McMillen said. “Does that mean they don’t get it until they graduate, or they have to be in good academic standing? There are a lot of nuances and complications to it.”

Tuesday’s announcement came after an NCAA working group that has been studying the name, image and likeness issue since May made a preliminary report to the organization’s board. That working group made no specific recommendations on key issues, however, such as whether athletes will be allowed to charge for autographs, and the NCAA said the group needs time for more feedback, after spending five months studying the issue.

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“What we’ve done is we’ve got the board to agree that it’s time for a change,” said Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East and a member of the working group examining the issue, in a phone interview Tuesday. “The question is what exactly does that model look like? That’s where the work comes in over the next couple of months . . . Unfortunately, it’s complicated, and we just need some more time to vet that all out.”

The National College Players Association, a nonprofit that advocates for expanded income and rights for college athletes, criticized Tuesday’s announcement as largely meaningless.

“I think this is a bit of smoke and mirrors here, which signals that the NCAA is still going to oppose players receiving real compensation,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the NCPA and a former football player at UCLA, in a phone interview.

As California lawmakers considered their bill this summer, Huma said, NCAA officials sought to forestall a vote by pointing out it had a working group studying name, image and likeness opportunities. The fact the NCAA working group still has no specific rule change recommendations, to Huma, should be evidence to elected officials mulling over similar legislation elsewhere to push forward.

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Lawmakers in more than 10 states have expressed interest in bills similar the one passed in California, and at the federal level, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has proposed legislation that would allow college athletes to earn money through name, image and likeness deals, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has expressed support.

“These issues are not difficult. What’s difficult for the NCAA is getting all those schools to agree on anything,” Huma said. “I hope state and federal lawmakers see this and know they should go full speed ahead. . . . I don’t think this is going to happen voluntarily.”

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