Rohlfing: Time for the NCAA to face the music

The National Collegiate Athletic Association logo.

Noah Rohlfing

Last week was the first moment I think the NCAA realized their jig is about up. 

The jig can mean many things when it comes to the NCAA — but in this case, it’s pretty clear where they’re (kind of) waving a white flag: name, image and likeness rights. 

The NCAA has been putting itself on a moral pedestal for many, many years with slogans talking about its many players going pro “in something other than sports” and its insistence that collegiate athletes are students first and shouldn’t be paid.

But over the past decade or so, a large group of the public has brought louder and louder discourse to the public eye with a goal of highlighting what they feel is an unfair dynamic between players and coaches in terms of earnings. 

It began as far back as the Fab Five at Michigan in the 1990s, but really picked up in the mid-2010s with the downfall of everyone’s favorite college football game in EA Sports’ NCAA Football franchise. The reason why it fell apart was the NCAA’s unwillingness to allow players to benefit from their name, image and likeness and profit from being featured in the popular video games. Instead, the organization stood firm on its principles and beliefs that collegiate athletes should not be able to make money from playing their sport. 

The NCAA has survived plenty of perceived attacks on its stance on amateurism. From Northwestern athletes attempting to start a union in 2014 and 2015 to the loss of multiple lawsuits (i.e. O’Bannon v. NCAA, Alston v. NCAA), it seems like the NCAA does just enough to outrun the demise of their model. 

But a California bill allowing students to make a profit off of their name, image and likeness that was recently passed into law seems to have (at least for a little bit) changed the narrative. Multiple states have come forward with bill proposals attempting to accomplish the same goal. 

Players at the collegiate level have voiced their support of the bills, including Iowa State’s redshirt junior forward Solomon Young at Big 12 Media Day.

“I’m not really sure what the concern is when it comes to that,” Young said. “But I think it would help us greatly.”

Young also said that if he had that extra income, it would make it easier for his mom and family to attend games. 

Public pressure forced the NCAA to give in a little bit last week, when on Tuesday the organization announced it would begin examining ways to improve student-athletes’ opportunities to use their name, image and likeness. People proclaimed it as a huge victory — which it was — but many mistakenly thought it was set in stone. 

But the NCAA left itself a lot of wiggle room in that statement — too much to give it the full benefit of the doubt.

The organization’s statement said it had given the divisions a directive to come up with rules before 2021, but that doesn’t mean there will be wholesale changes.

Later in the statement, it was said the NCAA will “make clear that compensation for athletics performance or participation is impermissible” when attempting to modernize these rules. But would a player’s marketability and performance not help a player’s ability to make money off of naming rights? And if so, wouldn’t this defeat the whole “players can’t be paid” ethos the NCAA has put its efforts toward protecting?

This is evidence people against players getting compensation use to say name and likeness rules shouldn’t be put in place. These arguments center on the premise that student-athletes in smaller sports would not be able to market themselves as much (and in turn, make less money) than big sport participants. 

Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton said it was a tough call when asked about it at Big 12 Media Day.

“I think it’s just a complicated conversation,” Haliburton said. “Basketball players and the football team are usually the money-makers at most schools, and other schools who are usually funded by those two programs — and especially football. Now, when kids are making their decisions on where they wanna go, they’re gonna make a decision more upon where they can make the most money, you know what I’m saying? I think it’s just a really complicated process.”

Bear in mind, there is plenty of evidence that some players at certain schools — albeit mainly in football and basketball — get paid regardless of the NCAA’s rules. The Steven Godfrey piece “Meet The Bag Man” is a great deep dive into the culture of paying players in college football.

No, I am not suggesting in any way Iowa State pays its players in any sport. But I am willing to bet there are niche advertisers — local to the school or local to the student-athlete — who would love to market players in smaller sports, depending on the location. This is all brand new, and there are going to be plenty of moving parts

Iowa State tackle Julian Good-Jones summed up his thoughts.

“Anything to help these student-athletes out, you know.” Good-Jones said. “The NCAA makes a lot of money, and for student-athletes to see some of the [money] — student-athletes definitely play a huge role in bringing that money in.”

There’s real questions as to how this will be done from an oversight perspective and if it will have the level of impact many people are hoping it will. Who knows if the NCAA will even allow this, but I hope they or some other entity do — and I think it could be the beginning of the end for the NCAA (not that this would be a bad thing). It’s long overdue, and has been ever since the man who created the term “student-athlete,” Walter Byers, called the amateurism model “outdated” in a 1987 speech. 

The jig is up — how quickly will the NCAA give in?