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NCAA updates plans to allow players to benefit from name, image, and likeness

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Further developments from Indianapolis on NIL compensation make clear that it’s a matter of when, not if.

Florida Gators Photo by Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The NCAA’s Board of Governors supported rule changes allowing collegiate athletes to make money off endorsements, social media, and their own businesses, the organization announced Wednesday.

It’s another step toward allowing players to make money off themselves while playing college sports, following the October 2019 shift by the body to a stance meant to allow the exploration of those topics.

And, just as was the case in October, it’s the NCAA taking half measures and hoping for compromise to win out. Given what the organization is hoping for, I don’t think it should hold its breath.

Here’s one of the most substantive chunks from the NCAA’s release:

The board is requiring guardrails around any future name, image and likeness activities. These would include no name, image and likeness activities that would be considered pay for play; no school or conference involvement; no use of name, image and likeness for recruiting by schools or boosters; and the regulation of agents and advisors.

The board’s action is the latest step by the Association to support college athletes and modernize its rules regarding name, image and likeness. In October, the board identified guiding principles to ensure that any changes support college sports as a part of higher education. Any changes adopted by the divisions must be in concert with the following principles and guidelines:

Ensuring student-athletes are treated similarly to nonathlete students unless a compelling reason exists to differentiate.

Maintaining the priorities of education and the collegiate experience to provide opportunities for student-athlete success.

Ensuring rules are transparent, focused and enforceable, and facilitating fair and balanced competition.

Making clear the distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities.

Making clear that compensation for athletics performance or participation is impermissible. Reaffirming that student-athletes are students first and not employees of the university.

Enhancing principles of diversity, inclusion and gender equity.

Protecting the recruiting environment and prohibiting inducements to select, remain at or transfer to a specific institution.

The NCAA, in case you missed the three separate mentions of education and the two of fairness there, is a) publicly trying to maintain the front that collegiate athletics are first and foremost about education, and not the millions and billions of dollars that athletes produce in revenue when they are doing athletic things and b) pretending that the permission of payments to athletes for various endorsements needs to be done fairly when the black market of paying for athletes’ services never has been.

Even more hilariously, the NCAA wants Congress involved in this process, and to serve as a sort of watchdog/referee.

The board also discussed the potential challenges to modernizing rules posed by outside legal and legislative factors that could significantly undermine the NCAA’s ability to take meaningful action. As a result, it will engage Congress to take steps that include the following:

Ensuring federal preemption over state name, image and likeness laws.

Establishing a “safe harbor” for the Association to provide protection against lawsuits filed for name, image and likeness rules.

Safeguarding the nonemployment status of student-athletes.

Maintaining the distinction between college athletes and professional athletes.

Upholding the NCAA’s values, including diversity, inclusion and gender equity.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), a leading NCAA critic in Congress, responded with a tweet one can imagine being written with him rolling his eyes.

The core newsworthy element of the NCAA continuing its progress towards allowing athletes to be paid with something other than scholarships to play sports in college is that progress itself. The NCAA may be getting dragged towards this future by legislation and advocacy, but it is, in fact, moving toward that goal, something that was unthinkable even five years ago.

And it’s clear that the organization has few remedies preserving its model of amateurism available to it as legislative pressure increases. Asking Congress to nullify state laws and put power in the NCAA’s hands is, as Murphy notes, a non-starter, and almost adorably naive.

This is all happening, however, without threatening the very soul of college sports, something the NCAA has claimed for decades that pay for play and related concepts would. In fact, that it is happening while the NCAA and its member institutions face a far more pressing crisis — the financial fallout, extent and future, of the coronavirus pandemic — helps prove that this was never nearly as big a deal as the NCAA falsely claimed.

It is still unclear exactly when the NCAA will be opening this particular door to collegiate athletes, and how wide the door will swing.

But it’s all a matter of when and how now. If got left behind a while ago.