Should Athletes Be Paid for Name and Image?

Athletics experts take up the topic at an Aspen Institute debate.

May 2, 2018
Jon Solomon (left), of the Aspen Institute's Sports and Society Program, leads a panel on compensation for college athletes.

WASHINGTON -- A National Collegiate Athletic Association special commission on reforming college basketball recently ducked the issue of athletes being paid for their name, image or likeness -- currently banned under the association's rules.

But Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state and Stanford University provost, and the panel’s chairwoman, last week underscored the confusion some athletics experts felt when a University of Notre Dame women’s basketball player who is still eligible to compete at the college level was allowed to go on Dancing With the Stars, a deal that required the NCAA to make an exception.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand the difference between Olympic payments and participation in Dancing with the Stars, which are allowed, and what can’t be allowed,” Rice said during a press briefing, urging the NCAA to act once lawsuits around the issue had been decided.

Inconsistencies in NCAA rules and a potential system of athletes being compensated for their name, image and likeness were debated Tuesday at an Aspen Institute event, featuring both the association’s critics and representatives from its member institutions.

The division in opinions was clear. Speakers tied to the NCAA -- such as an athletics director, a former basketball coach and a conference commissioner -- were much more cautious in embracing a system of compensation, either opposing it outright or cautioning that many details would need to be worked out before it was tried.

Researchers and economists, though, said that permitting athletes to be paid in this way wouldn’t shatter the amateur model to which the NCAA publicly clings. (NCAA detractors have said college sports have been corrupted too much to be considered amateur any longer.) Instead, granting athletes this control would benefit both them and the NCAA, because it would bring in more money and be fairer, they said.

The Aspen Institute’s panel began with a hypothetical -- that the NCAA had adopted a system similar to the Olympics’, in which athletes could gain individual or group endorsements from certain sponsors, pay taxes on that income, and have agents or businesses managers represent them.

John Thompson III, former men’s basketball coach at Princeton and Georgetown Universities, said that if such endorsement deals were allowed, many wouldn't be "legit" contracts, such as with soft drink companies; they would be manufactured by boosters and interested alumni trying to work around NCAA rules limiting payments to players.

He predicted that institutions would create a new job and hire someone whose sole duty would be to solicit endorsements for players.

While this may be a recruiting tool, it would not heavily influence the competitive scene, said Andy Schwarz, a noted sports economist and one of the minds behind the Historical Basketball League, which plans to premiere in 2019 or 2020 and pay its athletes.

The talented players would still seek out the institutions that invest the most, Schwarz said. Both Thompson and Dan Radakovich, a panelist and Clemson University athletics director, agreed.

Radakovich did not agree with a pay-for-play system, saying it would distract athletes who already have trouble balancing athletic and academic endeavors.

Thompson and Radakovich pointed out possible problems with players signing on with companies that conflict with their institution -- for instance, if an athlete signed on to promote Under Armour, but the college had already made a deal with Adidas to sponsor its teams.

This could be remedied with a contract, similar to when an athlete accepts a scholarship and agrees to the stipulations that come with it, Schwarz said.

He accused the NCAA of being an economic cartel that has exploited athletes, not given them what they are worth and instead funneled money to the NCAA and its members -- particularly the coaches. Revenue among the Power 5 conferences in the NCAA -- the wealthiest and most influential -- increased from $570 million in 2005 to $2.1 billion in 2015.

Salaries haven’t leveled off for coaches, either -- Steve Spurrier, formerly of the University of Florida, was the top earner among head football coaches in 2001 with $2.1 million annually, according to USA Today. In 2017, the University of Alabama’s Nick Saban took in more than $11 million.

“Courts haven’t seen fit to break up that cartel,” Schwarz said.

Thompson and Radakovich advocated other benefits for athletes, though, such as academic advising, medical treatment and conditioning, life experiences and travel, and most of all, college education for free. Schwarz said he wasn’t arguing that athletes aren’t being given anything -- just not what they’re worth.

Nigel Hayes, plaintiff in a compensation lawsuit against the NCAA, and one of the speakers, told the crowd that these “benefits” aren’t perks. It’s what the NCAA should be doing at the bare minimum, he said. The NCAA says that education comes first, but athletes, particularly basketball players, miss sometimes weeks of class to play games and in tournaments, Hayes said. Division I men’s basketball players spent an average of nearly two days a week off campus and missed more than two classes per week during the season, a 2015 NCAA survey revealed.

Once, Hayes missed a class to perform community service and the NCAA found him in violation of the rules -- a finding he appealed, he said.

Hayes, a former basketball player at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and now a professional, said he once tried to organize a boycott during a Atlantic Coast Conference/Big Ten challenge game against Syracuse University to advocate for paying players.

It was an offseason game that wouldn’t have affected the team’s record -- but because one member of his team was uncomfortable, he and his teammates didn’t follow through, Hayes said. But he predicted that athletes would soon have enough of not being compensated and rise up.

Gabe Feldman, Tulane University’s associate provost for NCAA compliance and director of its sports law program, floated the idea that athlete endorsement deals be made educational in some way. Athletes could earn college credit by writing papers on their endorsements and learn some form of financial literacy that would help them later if they turned professional, he said.

The discussion at the Aspen Institute comes after the Rice commission announced its recommendations on reforming college basketball last week. The commission was created after federal officials revealed a widespread alleged scheme to direct certain recruits to institutions in exchange for cash, leading to the arrests of 10 men, including associate and assistant coaches with four-high profile basketball programs.

The NCAA's leaders, the Board of Governors, will now need to decide which of the commission suggestions to incorporate -- the most prominent of which was ending the one-and-done rule, by which some athletes play for a single season in college before departing for the professional league.

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Jeremy Bauer-Wolf

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