NCAA takes biggest step yet toward allowing college athletes to be compensated for name, image and likeness

It’s finally happening. 

On Wednesday morning, the NCAA announced that its Board of Governors — the association’s highest governing body — expressed support for recommended rule changes that would allow college athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness. 

The Board of Governors met on the issue this week and agreed that athletes should be allowed to receive compensation for third-party endorsements “both related and separate from athletics.” Additionally, athletes would be permitted to receive payment for other opportunities “such as social media, businesses they have started and personal appearances.”

Within these endorsements, student-athletes would be permitted to identify themselves by sport and school. However, the use of conference and school logos or trademarks would not be allowed as the NCAA wants to make it clear that its athletes would not be paid by a university or college for endorsement opportunities. Athletes would be paid by a third party and NCAA officials repeatedly said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters that there is “no cap” to how much an athlete can be paid.

“Throughout our efforts to enhance support for college athletes, the NCAA has relied upon considerable feedback from and the engagement of our members, including numerous student-athletes, from all three divisions,” said Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and president of Ohio State. “Allowing promotions and third-party endorsements is uncharted territory.”

Moving forward, the Board of Governors has instructed each of the NCAA’s three divisions — Division I, II and III — to move toward drafting a specific rule structure with the goal of formally adopting new legislation in January ahead of the 2021-22 academic year. 

NCAA president Mark Emmert characterized Wednesday’s news as a “green light to explore” the implementation of these rules and emphasized that there is still “a lot to be determined going forward” to make this all come to fruition. Still, this is the most significant step yet in a decades-long debate over compensation for college athletes.

NCAA wants NIL legislation to stay within specific ‘guardrails’

Wednesday’s landmark news comes on the heels of six months of discussions from the group the Board of Governors appointed to create recommendations for rules that would allow name, image and likeness compensation for college athletes to exist. The impetus for change was spurred on by political pressure from numerous states that proposed — and even passed — bills that would allow college athletes in their states to be compensated for the use of their likenesses. 

Earlier this month, NCAA vice president for Division I Kevin Lennon described the recommendations as “robust” while avoiding a “pay-for-play model” or an “employer-employee relationship” between university and athlete. In essence, the NCAA wants to maintain its longstanding model of “amateurism.”

In a press release, the NCAA laid out specific “guardrails” it is requiring for “future name, image and likeness activities.” In addition to avoiding school and conference involvement, the NCAA wants to avoid using name, image and likeness activities “for recruiting by schools and boosters.” The NCAA also wants to regulate the use of “agents and advisors” in brokering potential deals with financial transactions being disclosed to the athlete’s university.

“As a national governing body, the NCAA is uniquely positioned to modify its rules to ensure fairness and a level playing field for student-athletes,” Emmert said in a press release. “The board’s action today creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”

All changes formally brought into NCAA legislation are expected to fall under these guidelines:

  • Ensuring student-athletes are treated similarly to non-athlete 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.

NCAA calls for Congressional action

With the national implementation of name, image and likeness rules, the NCAA has engaged with Congress to ensure it can oversee NIL rules on a national scale.

Specifically, the NCAA is calling for “federal preemption” over name, image and likeness laws that have been established in individual states. The NCAA also wants Congress to establish a “safe harbor” for the NCAA to “provide protection against lawsuits filed for name, image and likeness rules” while “safeguarding” the “non-employment status” of student-athletes and “maintaining the distinction between college athletes and professional athletes.”

“The evolving legal and legislative landscape around these issues not only could undermine college sports as a part of higher education but also significantly limit the NCAA’s ability to meet the needs of college athletes moving forward,” Drake said.

“We must continue to engage with Congress in order to secure the appropriate legal and legislative framework to modernize our rules around name, image and likeness. We will do so in a way that underscores the Association’s mission to oversee and protect college athletics and college athletes on a national scale.”

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