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Volume 21 No. 35
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Drastic reform needed from NCAA, partners

An unmistakably loud and resounding chorus now is demanding that college athletes be able to profit from their own name. That’s one of a handful of changes needed to restore credibility to college athletics at a time when the enterprise is reeling from an FBI investigation.

College leaders since 2014 have addressed the issue of student-athlete welfare with half-measures that were welcome at the time, but proved to be insufficient — a cost-of-attendance stipend, more meals, scholarships in perpetuity and health insurance options that extend past their playing days. While those important upgrades provided athletes at power five schools with a better training environment, it did nothing to change behaviors.

 

Smith

It’s the system that has created a tipping point in college athletics. Perhaps the actions of a minority brought us here, but they’re damaging the game and the business. The current rules and deterrents are clearly not enough, and we believe significant changes must be made. The current NCAA model works for 98 percent of its 460,000 student athletes. That is great. But we believe it can work for the other 2 percent as well, without taking away from the experience for the majority.

 

The NCAA has empowered Condoleezza Rice to be the agent for change. The response from the NCAA commission she chairs will influence the future of the college game for decades to come. So what should they do?

 

Here’s a three-point plan for significant change that will help everyone connected to the college game.

 

1. The NCAA must loosen rules banning agent/adviser contact with football and basketball players. College baseball and hockey athletes are allowed to have representation when they’re draft-eligible. Football and basketball players should, too. It’s long past time to shine some light on these shady back-room relationships. This is something all of the conferences can get behind and implement easily. We’d suggest a system that would have student athletes register their agent and related commercial activity with the athletic department, just like they have to register their car on campus.

 

The idea of the NCAA trying to monitor and police every meal between an athlete and an agent has proved impossible and a pointless endeavor.

 

2. The NCAA should adopt an Olympic-style set of rights that permits athletes to monetize their name and likeness. What’s the harm in allowing a local auto dealer to invite a star tailback to his lot during a sale and pay him a fee for the appearance? Some will argue that this scenario is ripe for abuse if boosters recruit athletes based on appearance fees. That’s worthy of debate, but this is a modern-day solution for a modern-day problem. 

 

While the change in agent rules is a layup, player name and likeness will test the NCAA’s resolve to evolve. Allowing compensation takes college athletics a giant step away from the amateurism model. Attitudes are shifting, and the billions of dollars coming into the system through TV contracts have been the catalyst. How can the NCAA espouse an amateur model when the rest of the enterprise has been professionalized?

 

More than ever, college coaches and administrators are willing to have a discussion about compensating players. It was taboo as recently as five years ago to even have a conversation with an athletic director or a commissioner about providing athletes with more than a scholarship. Remember Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany’s rant in 2013 about his conference going Division III if that happened?

 

Well, change is coming and it’s time that it did. The FBI’s revelation of an underground economy, one that transfers payments from agents to young athletes and their parents/handlers in exchange for signing with a certain school, irreparably has scarred college athletics. Everyone knew it was happening — coaches, media and the NCAA. But it took a federal investigation to prompt college leaders to act.

 

Giving athletes rights to their own name and likeness is good business for the schools, too. That way, the compensation comes from the autograph signing or the endorsement, not a salary paid by the school. Because the compensation is coming from outside the athletic budget, funding of Olympic sports wouldn’t be threatened — an excuse often used in the argument against paying players.

 

Athlete name and likeness also could turn into a revenue-generating opportunity for the school’s multimedia rights holder because that same auto dealership would likely want school rights to go with the athlete’s appearance. Similarly, any school that wants to sell a star player’s jersey with his name and number should give the athlete a cut. Again, this is sound financially. An authentic jersey would sell for a higher price than a generic one. The school’s licensing agent would strike a deal with the player’s agent on a royalty fee.

 

Coaches will worry about a have/have-not system that rewards the celebrity tailback and not the offensive lineman, but we don’t think that’s reason enough to deprive athletes of their name and likeness rights. Implementation of a system like this has been the primary challenge for college leaders, although one alternative would be to create a group licensing model like the pros have to distribute licensing revenue evenly.

 

3. Let the most talented basketball players go straight to the pros and end the one-and-done business. College leaders understandably hate the message one-and-done sends, even though its damage to the college game is debatable.

 

This is an area where NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in particular, needs to show some conviction. One-and-done is an agreement between the NBA and the players association that requires a player to be a year removed from high school before entering the draft. The NBA and players union will have to agree on any rule change, but it can be done.

 

The baseball rule makes the most sense. It permits a player to be drafted straight out of high school. But if the player elects to go to college, he has to stay for three years before he’s draft-eligible again — or any time if he goes to a junior college. This gives the athlete at least the appearance of being a serious student by spending three years on campus, while allowing them to develop their skills and prepare them for the rigors of the pro game, something Silver is concerned about.

 

With the ability to make money through name and likeness, maybe some elite high school players will opt for college over the pros. There are many examples of first-round picks in baseball, using the advice of an agent, forsaking the signing bonus to go to college. And when was the last college baseball scandal you heard about?

 

The NBA appears to be moving in that direction, based on reports last week that have the league exploring a path straight from high school to the pros.

 

One additional element from TV analyst and ex-agent Len Elmore: If a player goes pro and flops or goes undrafted, he can return to play in college. His clock — five years to play four — would start after high school. 

 

Silver can get this done. It’s understandable that the NBA doesn’t want to get younger. The NBA game has benefited by the best players spending a year in college basketball before they matriculate to the pros, but the NBA now has a developmental league capable of grooming the younger players with a sound basketball education. It didn’t always have that. 

 

Meanwhile, Rice’s commission is deciding the future of college basketball behind closed doors — the first round of suggestions on how to reform the game will be revealed in April. In the interim, the NCAA is left with a fragmented and indistinct voice to respond as public perceptions swing in a new direction. While NCAA President Mark Emmert has admitted system failure, all he can figuratively say for the time being is: We’re working on it. Check back with us in a month. 

 

The ongoing FBI investigation brought us to a point where the current state of college athletics no longer is tenable. Collegiate leaders, both at the NCAA and on campus, will have only themselves to blame if they don’t take substantial action. History tells us that it’s only going to get worse in the win-at-all-costs atmosphere that cloaks the college game. It’s easy to imagine similar probes like the FBI’s regularly damaging college athletics.

 

Surely the leaders in college sports recognize the crisis. But are they emboldened and brave enough to chart a new course? Our suggested rules changes would represent a dramatic shift for college athletics and move it away from the restrictive amateur model.

 

Institutional leaders have an opportunity to bring college athletics into a new, modern age. Emmert is adamant that the Rice commission will propose vigorous changes and the NCAA’s leadership of college presidents will be receptive.

 

Failing to act now would be a gross miscalculation and negligence in leadership.

 

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Michael Smith can be reached at msmith@sportsbusinessjournal.com.