The NCAA Board of Governors voted recently to allow student-athletes to benefit financially from the use of their name, image and likeness. That move came in response to a California law that will make it illegal for colleges to prevent athletes from earning money for such endorsements.
The NCAA has mandated that each of its three divisions develop rules governing such situations while still adhering to amateurism rules. It wants them in place by January 2021.
Several other states have followed California’s lead by pursuing legislation regarding compensation for college student-athletes. With the movement in its infancy, there are a lot of questions that must be answered about guidelines for allowing student-athletes to benefit from their status.
Husson University athletics director Frank Pergolizzi and University of Maine AD Ken Ralph don’t believe the rules, however implemented, are likely to have a significant impact on their student-athletes.
“I’m sure some of them are seeing this and think it’s going to be a bonanza and they’re going to be rolling in dough,” Pergolizzi said. “But it’s not going to happen [for most] because companies aren’t going to think they are popular enough or good enough to endorse their product.”
Ralph agreed that there probably won’t be a lot of highly marketable student-athletes at UMaine.
“You’re talking about a very tiny fraction of players,” Ralph said. “It will have a bigger impact on Power Five conference schools than a school like UMaine.”
Pergolizzi said student-athletes who compete in football and men’s basketball would probably be the best candidates to benefit from whatever rules are put in place.
“The big thing is we are just at the beginning of this. We have no idea how it’s going to turn out,” Ralph said.
Pergolizzi said the NCAA’s reaction to the California law was unusual.
“The NCAA moved at lightning speed and the NCAA never moves fast on anything,” Pergolizzi said.
Ralph said the scholarship system now in place in Division I and Division II creates an environment where many student-athletes are treated equally within their teams and in the athletic department. Some athletes receive a full scholarship, while others get partial athletic grants and some receive no athletics aid.
One of the potential negatives of opening the door for student-athletes to be paid based on their athletic status is how it might affect their motivation.
“Is the student-athlete’s allegiance going to be to their team or their sponsor?” Ralph said. “Will the star player be playing for money as opposed to playing for their team?”
That could lead teammates to view those athletes as selfish and could harm team chemistry.
“Guys might have different motives [for playing] at that point,” UMaine senior football player Joe Fitzpatrick of North Yarmouth said. “That’s the best thing about college football, there’s none of that in there now. We’re playing because we love the game, and we want to get an education.”
UMaine junior football player Chris Ferguson isn’t against athletes being able to earn money, under strict guidelines, but he isn’t convinced allowing them to be paid for ads or endorsements is the way to go.
“[Advertisers] are outside sources coming in and intruding on your team,” Ferguson said. “It might not be the best idea, but it will be interesting to see how it goes. I don’t think it will work out that well.”
Other considerations for universities involve the impact on foreign students, possible Title IX repercussions and taxation on the non-scholarship income earned by the student-athletes.
Students on athletic scholarships can hold jobs, too, but Ralph said rules for international student-athletes would keep them from pursuing endorsement deals.
“We have athletes from 28 different countries on our rosters. This would put them at a disadvantage with their [American] peers,” Ralph said.
UMaine has been home to a handful of stars who achieved enough notoriety that they might have been able to cash in on their careers.
Perhaps the most marketable athlete in Black Bears history was Clinton native Cindy Blodgett, who led the women’s basketball program to its first four NCAA tournament appearances and put thousands of people in the seats at Alfond Arena.
Hockey player Paul Kariya, who became the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker Award in leading the Black Bears to their first NCAA championship in 1993, also was hugely popular.
Among current UMaine athletes, perhaps women’s basketball player Blanca Millan would be the most desirable for sponsors. The Spaniard, the 2019 America East Player and Defensive Player of the Year, has sparked the Black Bears to two straight league championships and NCAA tournament appearances.
“It’s a good thing. I have nothing against athletes getting paid, but it should be monitored,” Fitzpatrick said.
Ralph questioned whether it would be a problem in terms of Title IX if a men’s hockey player receives an endorsement deal but nobody from the women’s hockey team gets one.
Athletic scholarships are not taxed, but Ralph wonders whether income from endorsements would be taxed and, if so, who would pay it? And once NCAA guidelines are established, who will be responsible for policing them?
Pergolizzi speculated the reason the NCAA jumped into the fray so quickly is that it wants to regulate endorsements rather than have each state set its own guidelines.
He pointed out that the catalyst for the movement was the trial involving former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon. He saw his likeness from UCLA’s 1995 NCAA championship team featured in an EA Sports video game called “NCAA Basketball ’09.”
The unnamed figure was a power forward like he was and matched his height, weight, bald head, his No. 31 jersey and his skin tone. He sued the NCAA and the Collegiate Licensing Company for depriving him of his right to be financially compensated.
“They were selling the video game, so he thought he deserved to get paid,” Pergolizzi said.
The case resulted in a $40 million settlement in 2013, and several thousand former athletes who were depicted in EA Sports’ NCAA Basketball and NCAA Football game series were expected to receive up to $4,000 apiece.
Two years ago, Central Florida football place-kicker Donale De La Haye was ruled ineligible because he made money off YouTube videos. He was advised not to sell ads for the videos, but he didn’t think it was fair and sold them anyway.
“As an educational purist, I don’t want to lose what we have,” Ralph said. “The reason kids should want to earn an athletic scholarship is to get an education. But I understand that kids want the right to branch out and be able to profit from ventures like a YouTube channel or a fashion line which non-student-athletes are able to do.”
Even so, college student-athletes ultimately choose the scholarship experience.
“This is all volunteer. If a student-athlete feels they are being exploited, they can get out of the system and go elsewhere. They can go to a [non-scholarship] Division III school and play the sport they love [without the restrictions placed on a Division I or II scholarship athlete].”
Ralph hopes the NCAA will be deliberate in executing a plan for allowing student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness.
“The NCAA has been criticized for moving too slowly on things, but they have to be cautious with this and make sure they get it right on the first try,” Ralph said. “This could impact our current structure within athletics at the college level and people need to be prepared for it.”