As the debate rages in sports media and on the virtual barstools of places like Twitter and Facebook about whether college athletes should be paid, the one person who is ultimately the final arbiter of whether action gets taken — NCAA President Mark Emmert — made an interesting announcement Thursday.
No, it wasn’t about whether college revenue sport athletes should draw a salary — that remains a subject firmly locked behind the NCAA’s wall of amateurism.
At issue is not that but whether NCAA athletes should be allowed “publicity rights” — that is, the right to profit from and be compensated for the use of their names, likenesses and other “identifying marks” by advertisers, video game companies and others.
If this sounds familiar, it was the centerpiece of the Ed O’Bannon case against the NCAA, when the former UCLA standout, along with thousands of other athletes in a class action, sued college sports’ governing body. They were partially successful, winning the lawsuit in district court but having portions of that judgment overturned on appeal.
The O’Bannon lawsuit also saw a $40 million settlement with Electronic Arts, which discontinued its NCAA basketball video game series in 2010 and its NCAA football series in 2014.
It is in the spirit of that lawsuit and its aftermath that lawmakers have begun to take up the cause of student-athletes.
A bill introduced in the U.S. House by North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Walker, “would amend the definition of a qualified amateur sports organization in the tax code to remove the restriction on student-athletes using or being compensated for use of their name, image and likeness,” according to The News & Observer in Raleigh.
Walker had sharp words for the NCAA.
“Signing on with a university, if you’re a student-athlete, should not be (a) moratorium on your rights as an individual,” he said last month.
Emmert was asked about the bill Thursday during a Final Four news conference, according to CBS Sports.
“We’ve talked to the congressman and tried to understand his position,” he said. “There is very likely to be in the coming months even more discussion about the whole notion of name, image and likeness (and) how it fits into the current legal framework.
“Similarly, there needs to be a lot of conversation about how, if it was possible, how it would be practical. Is there a way to make that work? Nobody has been able (to come) up with a resolution of that yet.”
It should be noted that Emmert did not entirely dismiss the notion of making an exception allowing student-athletes to effectively sign endorsement deals before going pro.
After all, with the NBA rumored to be eliminating the “one-and-done” rule in its next collective bargaining agreement and Duke superstar Zion Williamson getting pressure from former NBA superstars to “shut it down” rather than risk injuries lowering his marketability — a real issue when Williamson missed time with injury this season — college basketball could stop a talent drain by allowing would-be student-athletes to avoid having to choose between going to college and earning their way out of urban poverty.
It also might stop the plethora of “pay-for-play” scandals that have rocked the NCAA.
Whether or not the organization moves on its own on this issue, there are plenty of legislators seemingly willing to force the NCAA to do so.
In addition to Walker’s bill, similar legislation is under consideration in the California state legislature. The Fair Pay to Play Act threatens to throw a monkey wrench into West Coast college athletics by putting its schools under one set of rules while those in the other 49 states plus the District of Columbia operate under another, according to a report in The Athletic.
If passed, the bill, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, could have explosive follow-on effects for the six conferences, including the Pac-12, Mountain West and West Coast Conference, with schools in California.
“For too long college athletes have been exploited by a deeply unfair system,” Skinner said. “Our universities and the NCAA make huge amounts of money from TV deals and corporate sponsorships of their teams. The state Fair Pay to Play Act, which is my bill, will help level the playing field by allowing college athletes to sign sponsorship deals much like Olympic athletes are now allowed to.”
If a North Carolina Republican and a Democrat from Berkeley agree on the problem, it could mean there’s hope for a bipartisan solution for those who believe college athletes should be compensated beyond their scholarships.
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