John Clay

Forced to change, the NCAA won’t make benefit path for athletes an easy one

At first glance, the NCAA appeared to take a step forward on Tuesday.

The Indianapolis body announced that its Board of Governors had voted unanimously to begin the process that would allow student-athletes to “enhance name, image and likeness opportunities.”

“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said Ohio State President Michael Drake, who chairs the board and who used the phrase “modernization for the future” when explaining the board’s decision.

“I think it’s progress,” said UK football coach Mark Stoops on Tuesday when asked about the news.

And yet, it’s the NCAA, which has fought so long and so hard against student-athletes receiving any kind of compensation beyond the cost of a scholarship, which has wrapped itself so tightly around an outdated model of amateurism, you have to wonder if this isn’t some kind of smokescreen.

Tweeted ESPN analyst and constant NCAA critic Jay Bilas: “From the NCAA Board of Governors (what it’s REALLY saying): We shall strive to allow athletes the right to name, image and likeness opportunities, but only in a manner that does not allow them to monetize their name, image and likeness opportunities.”

Don Van Natta Jr., the veteran journalist who has reported extensively on the NCAA, tweeted, “Alternative headline: Don’t Believe What the NCAA Board of Governors Say -- Ever.”

“Seems like there would be some questions I would have about (how it would work). I know the people I’m dealing with,” said Stoops with a chuckle.

The NCAA didn’t want to do this, of course. Its hand was forced. First California passed and its governor signed the “Fair Pay for Play Act” which would allow student-athletes to profit off their likeness, starting in 2023. Before passage, the NCAA threatened to ban California colleges from its championships, calling the proposal “an existential threat” to college sports.. The act passed anyway.

Sensing that California might have a competitive recruiting advantage, other states soon made noise about following suit. Earlier this month, UK basketball coach John Calipari said he had been for athletes benefiting from their likeness for years, but did have questions about how it would be regulated.

“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,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert on Tuesday. “The board’s action today creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”

In other words, the devil is in the details. And the NCAA has a way of twisting the details to its favor, so that the generous revenue stream continues to flow to universities, administrators and coaches, while keeping the athletes amateurs.

And then you have the politicians. North Carolina senator Richard Burr said Tuesday he would fight the NCAA’s action in Congress, tweeting, “If college athletes are going to make money off their likeness while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to “cash in” to income taxes.”

Translation: They didn’t pay college ball players back in Burr’s day. There are more scholarships than just athletic scholarships. Does that mean a student on an academic scholarship, who earns money through a job, would have his scholarship taxed, as well? Maybe Burr is auditioning for an NCAA job whenever he leaves Congress.

“I’ll continue to let the smart people make those decisions and work on that and get all the kinks ironed out,” said Stoops. “There’s just so much to work out that I don’t have time to put my arms around it. I’m all for the kids.”

Me, too. With all the money being made in the big business that is college sports, I’m all for the student-athletes getting a larger slice of the pie. Allowing them to benefit from their likeness is a sensible step in that direction.

But as for the NCAA allowing that, even after Tuesday’s Board of Governors vote, I’ll believe it when I see it. Actions speak louder than words.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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