Keith Strudler: NIL And The NCAA
College sports is filled with acronyms. There’s the NCAA itself. There’s conferences, like the ACC and SEC. There’s things like the APR – that’s Division I academic progress rate – and the PTD, or your progress towards a degree. And now here’s the new one that everyone’s talking about. NIL. Name, image, and likeness. This refers to the general idea that college athletes will soon be able to make money off of their own intellectual property – anything from doing a commercial to, more likely, monetizing a social media account. This stands in strong contrast to pretty much the history of the NCAA, where so much as selling an autograph could unravel your entire college career. Several states, and soon to be most states, have some form of legislation in the works to make this legal starting as early as July 1. Congress is still debating the issue at the federal level, which would alleviate this patch quilt of disparate standards across the country. And the NCAA itself will likely soon make a more definitive ruling once cases move through the court system. But regardless, the days of college athletes selling themselves is soon upon us, which is either the greatest justice in the history of athletics or the beginning of the end of college sports, depending on your perspective.
Beyond the philosophical, which is largely how this topic has been adjudicated up to this point, there are a lot of questions about how, or even if this might work. Right now, different states have different proposed rules. Which could mean that a baseball player in Georgia might have more latitude than one in Iowa. Such could be the genesis of a whole lot of recruiting battles. It also means that levying any punishment, which generally speaking is what the NCAA does best, will be more complicated than paying federal income taxes after winning the lottery. Second, we’re about to enter a world known as the land of hypotheticals, where everyone tangentially involved in college sports will deeply contemplate the most rare and unlikely scenario and how it might completely destroy the treasured tradition of the Williams/Amherst tennis match. There’s no doubt that an oil magnate in Texas – cause it’s always an oil guy in Texas – will find a way to now legally pay some five-star quarterback to play football for his favorite team, and this could cause some problems. But to assume that will destroy the institution of college sports is like pretending that forgetting peperoni on one delivery order will bring down the entire Dominos empire. If anything, the exception will prove the rule.
There’s other things – like whether social media influencer pay reinforces gender inequity, how university brands might play into this, and whether universities now need to create offices and classes to help athletes build their earning potential – and newsflash, several already have. Who says academia moves slow. All of these will be part of the evolutionary process of how these laws operate in the wild, something we’ve never seen before.
But the real question, the big question, is how much money are we talking about? There’s plenty of estimates of how much a small, fairly limited group of athletes could make, much of it around people with robust Tik Tok followings, or something like that. Those instances provide a blueprint for monetization for those few individuals. But that’s a much a byproduct of entrepreneurial vision as it is athletic exposure. In other words, I don’t assume that just because someone plays college sports that there’s a market for their likeness. I do believe that those students who understand the wild west of content creation will figure it out – by the way, whether or not they play volleyball for some school in the Midwest. That’s the strange thing about this whole debate. Right now, we’re arguing completely about the unknown, contemplating a market that is both finite – because everything is finite – and with certain boundaries. Which means that while I do fully support giving NIL rights to their rightful owners, I maybe don’t believe the reward is nearly as lucrative as it might seem. And this is coming from a former cross-country runner whose image was likely only valuable to his parents.
Of course, this whole debate skirts the bigger issue – should athletes get paid. Not for who they are, but for what they do, or maybe what they earn for their school. If you think NIL arguments are hairy, just wait. I believe the NCAA has already imagined an acronym for that. It’s NGH – in other words, never going to happen.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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