NIL: Amateurism or fair market forces?

For years, the NCAA resisted paying college athletes under the guise of “amateurism”. They even went so far as to create the term “student-athlete” in response to a court decision that athletes were employees of the university. Not only did they refuse to pay college athletes, but they also restricted their ability to earn endorsement money. They even went so far as to tell former UCF punter Donald De La Haye to delete or demonetize his YouTube channel in order to keep his eligibility. His channel contained videos demonstrating his kicking ability and talking about his family and life journey from Costa Rica, but the NCAA still deemed it to be making money off his athletic abilities.

Olympic fencer Race Imboden wrote in an article for The Players Tribune back in 2015 that when he was in college, the NCAA ruled that modeling work he had done was forbidden unless he wasn’t paid for it. He said his prior modeling was allowed because it was before his NCAA career, but once he was an active athlete, he’d lose his college eligibility if he was paid for it.

Fortunately, thanks to intervention from states and a United State Supreme Court decision ruling these sorts of restrictions to be a violation of anti-trust rules, college athletes are now allowed to make endorsement money off their name, image, and likeness. Many people have said this is a bad decision and will lead to the professionalism of college sports and athletes won’t focus on their academics or sports. I disagree for several reasons, and here’s why.

First off, the idea that these athletes can’t make money endorsing a product while they’re playing college sports is absurd. Like Imboden for example. He didn’t get modeling contracts because of his athletic ability. It was a job for him, no different than a college kid working at a bank or pizza shop. If a music, art, or business student has some great product, they’re allowed to sell it and make money of it, even if they’re in college. They’re not restricted in any way because of their status as a college student. Why should it be different for these athletes just because they’re in the public eye?

Second, these athletes are not being paid by the school for playing. They’re being paid by companies for endorsing products, signing autographs, or making personal appearances. However, there are guardrails in place. The schools have to approve any deals the players make, and they’re not allowed to endorse alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or gambling products, and they’re not allowed to endorse competitors of products a school has contracts with. For example, an athlete at a school with a Nike contract is not allowed to endorse Reebok or Adidas.

Third, as I wrote a few weeks ago about players sitting out bowl games, many of these athletes come from extreme poverty. Many players have said that when they were in college, they would have no money for food. Former Tennessee player Arian Foster said at one point that he was starving and had no food or money and told his coach he was going to do something stupid to jeopardize his eligibility. He said that he took money when he was in college, and didn’t care because the program makes hundreds of millions of dollars in merchandise, TV contracts, and ticket sales, and the coaches make millions and can have endorsement deals. Which leads to my next point.

These athletes are the ones who generate the money for the athletic departments. The coaches get paid millions, and their contracts include clauses that they get stipends for their car and insurance, and have preferred access to getting tickets for other athletic events at the school. In addition, they get bonuses based on how the team performs. Until Jay Bilas exposed the NCAA, their website sold players jerseys. Even though it didn’t have their name on the back, Bilas showed by typing in a player’s name, his team’s jersey with his number was available for purchase. He showed that a search for Johnny Manziel showed a Texas A&M jersey with the number 2 available for purchase, which was Manziel’s number at Texas A&M.

The last 15 years has seen massive realignment in conferences, and schools have been spending 9 figures to build new athletic facilities and renovate existing facilities. The realignment has been driven by TV money, and the construction has been driven by the desire to increase gameday revenues in the form of more tickets and luxury boxes. Without the players, people won’t watch or buy tickets. And despite all the revenue they generate, they don’t get 1 penny. They don’t even get any additional stipends beyond the cost of attendance.

The argument that it would ruin the game or the athletes focus on their academics is rubbish. If anything, it would help them. As the NCAA commercials say, there are 500,000 NCAA student athletes, and just about all of them will be going pro in something other than sports. In the major revenue sports of football and basketball, only 1% of the players end up being drafted to the NFL and NBA. It won’t turn the game into pay for play like the professional ranks. What it will do is keep the lights on and the players fed. Schools should want their athletes to not have to worry about how they’re going to eat, because we know how important nutrition is in sports. For players who don’t have a professional future, this will be their only opportunity to make money for playing the game they love.

Additionally, the players being able to make money will remove the pressure to provide for their families and jump to the professional ranks if they’re not ready and have eligibility remaining. This would allow them to remain at school and focus on improving their game. NFL Hall of Famer Ty Law wrote in an article for The Player’s Tribune that when he was at Michigan, his grandfather’s house was in foreclosure. He said he left for the NFL after his junior year in order to save his house. Had he been allowed to be paid while in college, he could have saved his house and come back for his senior year, or gone to the NFL on his own accord instead of for money.

Lastly, the idea that NIL will play a factor in recruiting is hogwash. While it might affect things, schools are not allowed to offer NIL inducements, and athletes can’t sign deals that are contingent on how much they play. If a player makes his decision based on the NIL money he can get, he’s probably not someone you want on your team to begin with, as it speaks to their character and their priorities. As I said previously, it will help with day to day expenses, but the real money is in the pros. Ohio State commit Brandon Inniss said as much when discussing his recruitment process. He said he had lucrative endorsement opportunities if he went to other schools, but he decided on going to Ohio State because his focus is on improving his game and making it in the NFL. Because he knows that the life changing money comes from the rookie NFL contract, and the generational wealth comes from the second NFL contract. But he won’t get that opportunity for the second contract if he doesn’t perform on the first contract. Instead of ruining the game, it will improve it, and allow for the athletes who generate the revenue to get paid for it.

Share This Article