The most impactful matter in college sports has nothing to do with expanding the College Football Playoffs from four to 12 teams. The most impactful matter is keeping the industry from imploding from the weight of its historic greed and intransigence.
Starting July 1.
That’s when schools in five states, without violating rules this time, can help direct a waterfall of outside money upon their athletes, most likely to football and men’s basketball players, for use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL).
Schools in Washington will not be among them, because the Legislature has been busy with more important things.
As of last week, 19 state NIL laws have been passed, five of them set to take effect on July 1. Two others await governors’ signatures. Which means the Washington schools will not have the same resources to compete for top-rated recruits.
Unless . . .
Congress in two weeks acts to create a federal standard for operating an NIL mechanism.
The NCAA has been too inept to create one, which would avert the chaos of a patchwork of state laws that may contain unique features (“Son, we’ll pay you to live at Nick Saban’s guest house if you say what a nice job we did refurbishing his pool. Bring your girlfriends.”)
Finally, someone directly impacted by the pending unfairness was called upon publicly by Congress to hit the klaxon. Gonzaga men’s basketball coach Mark Few, no one’s idea of a victim, nevertheless made an honest case for the crisis.
Invited by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the powerful Commerce, Science and Technology Committee, to testify before her panel of fellow senators, Few was the only witness who was working for an athletics program about to take a hit.
“We are at a critical juncture in college athletics, and it really isn’t an exaggeration to say the future of college sports is in jeopardy,” Few told the committee and a C-SPAN TV audience. “We absolutely should have addressed these NIL rights a long time ago, and I’m embarrassed that we’re here having to deal with it right now.”
Embarrassed, he said. Finally, evidence from an industry insider that at least one person was capable of shame.
This elevator car could have been stopped at any number of floors above its free-fall to the bottom, by acting on reforms called for by athletes, media, university presidents and faculties or Congress in the past 50 to 60 years, when the realization grew that amateurism had become a con.
Instead, after a series of court challenges made clear that the grifting of college students must be stopped, the NCAA, with pouty lower lip, lumbered about. It sought to make its own nationwide rules to allow athletes to benefit from their labors, just as music or art students can earn money from teaching while attending class. But despite a half-century of run-up with all previous attempts at reforms, the NCAA could not stick the landing. It couldn’t even mount the balance beam.
Belatedly, the schools had no choice but to do something all of big-time athletics departments hated to do: Beg Congress to save them from themselves. Hence, the hearing.
“These changes are long, long overdue,” Few said. “All athletes deserve to use their own name, image and likeness in commercial endorsements and on social media, and I am very much in favor of them profiting as much as they possibly can from this.
“With us being a state without NIL, it’s certainly going to impact recruiting in a huge way.”
Gonzaga’s success hardly makes Few a sympathetic figure, but in the world of telling truth to power, he brings cred that coaches at Washington and Washington State currently don’t have.
Judging by the questions from senators to Few and other witnesses, opposition to the principle of NIL was scant. Its execution remains up for much debate.
The Commerce committee, which has been at work for months on the topic, must reconcile eight Congressional college athlete rights bills, including matters such as athlete health care, educational outcome and unionization. The driver behind this coalescing of interests is simple: It is a once-in-two-centuries chance to fundamentally reform college athletics when the industry is legally and financially at its weakest.
Looming over the discussion is a fundamental paradox: How to create transparency in NIL compensation to avoid recruiting advantages, while protecting athletes’ right to privacy. Each athletics program wants to know what its competitors are up to, but public disclosure in order to curb coaches’ worst instincts could put players’ personal and financial welfare at risk, not to mention disrupting the locker room.
Tim Nevius, a former NCAA enforcement official who now works as a college athlete lawyer and advocate, told Sportico in an interview, “As with a lot of issues, compare the regular university student to a college athlete, and if a university student strikes an endorsement deal or has an Instagram endorsement arrangement, they don’t have to disclose anything.
“Starting from that point, we should ask the question of why there is a difference.”
A proposal under consideration is creation of a third-party adjudicator, an independent agency that could determine fair market value for services in each area, but free of public-disclosure laws. Of course, that involves creating a layer of bureaucracy that would have to analyze thousands of NIL offers across all sports to determine equity, and do it about as quickly as it takes a coach to go from one spurning to the next recruit.
The notion of funding such a bureaucracy brings us back to what current college sports story is larger. Turns out the proposed expansion of the college football playoffs and the infant NIL operations are connected.
Following a year of big operational losses due to the pandemic, college sports must now reckon with how to fund an “NIL police” to enforce compliance. My guess is part of the solution is to expand the CFP field from three to 11 games to gin up revenues.
Unfortunately for the viziers of “amateur” sports, the earliest year the 12-team CFP could be ready is 2023. By then, all that may be afforded is a 12-game series between Alabama and Clemson, winner to the NFL.
Opportunists for college basketball might want start sketching out what a 128-team bracket looks like.