A deeply injured NCAA receives a band-aid

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Photo courtesy of UD Athletics

In 2021, student-athletes might have more than college scholarship offers to consider. When the new NCAA ruling giving student-athletes permission to use their image and likeness for profit goes into effect, they may have agents and marketing opportunities vying for their attention. 

The ruling will allow student-athletes in all three divisions of NCAA to profit from advertisements, endorsements or other reproductions of their image and likeness, conferring what is known as one’s right of publicity. According to a timeline on the NCAA website, the rule is set to go into effect in fall 2021.

The ruling lies in stark contradiction with one of the key principles implied by the organization’s long-standing refusal of image and likeness rights: the sale of your face belongs to the world of professional sports, not student-athletes. 

But what belongs to professional athletics that college sports don’t simulate? The argument is clear: colleges are making buckets of profit off of student-athletes, or “student”-athletes, while the graduates themselves have nothing to show for it after four years, except broken bodies. 

Their non-athlete peers, moreover, are able to launch a business or endorse a product while in college. In the age of entrepreneurship and social media, it didn’t seem fair. Over time, the NCAA’s rule was seen less as protection for student-athletes against merchandising media and more as a child safety-belt.

The NCAA has quietly been changing its mind. Since 2015 the NCAA has approved 98% of the 200 waivers submitted, which allow the student-athlete an exception from the rules regarding image and likeness rights, although not without some important fine print. 

When Arike Ogunbowale, a former Notre Dame basketball star player, was invited to go on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2018 after her stunning performance in the NCAA national championships, a waiver allowed her to perform on the show and accept any benefits. However, the waiver did not allow her to promote her performance in any way, including appearing in commercials or even asking people to vote on her own social media. 

Doing away with waivers would have allowed Ogunbowale these freedoms without any questions. It would also have allowed Katarina Samardzija, a tennis player for Grand Valley State, to promote her small business without jumping through hoops. It would have let Clark Hazlett, a football player from Linfield College, profit from his viral YouTube videos about his recovery from injury. Their non-athlete peers would also never have to contend with these types of road-blocks.

Although giving student-athletes their image and likeness rights might even the playing field, it band-aids a much bigger wound in the NCAA system. 

Last spring, when I interviewed the University of Dallas athletics recruiting coordinator and former Division I basketball coach Matt Grahn, he told me that he didn’t sleep well at night as a DI coach. 

“It wasn’t balanced,” Grahn said. He called his mom, telling her that he couldn’t have a family while coaching Division I. There simply wasn’t time beyond his coaching career, let alone for the athletes themselves to be students. 

“Their full-time job is an athlete, and they just happen to go to class,” Grahn said. He told me stories of student-athletes who had to switch their majors just to accommodate the demands of their sport. Grahn escorted some student-athletes, who felt no incentive for academic achievement, to class to make sure they attended, only for them to slip out when he left. 

Pressured by scholarships, athletes are expected to perform at a high level. While some student-athletes thrive under the pressure of being pushed to the highest possible caliber, it also can push players and coaches to bend the rules and hand money under the table. 

“Because schools are offering grants and aid, the pressure to win becomes a whole lot more important,” said Grahn. “And when that pressure happens, what we see is that people in coaching positions tend to want to bend or break the rules … they will do things just to win more in the win/loss column, and will sacrifice their own morals and ethics to do so.”

A remark by a former Division I runner, Jordan Ness, undercuts any constructive element of athletic scholarships. “When you’re on scholarship, they own you,” Ness said in a phone interview last year. 

Dr. Thomas Jodziewizc, who has a deeply-rooted connection to UD athletics, told me that the distinction between Division I and professional sports has all but dissipated in recent years.

“I’m disgusted with DI. It’s professional,” Jodziewizc said. “There’s too much money involved. They’re athletic students.” 

The NCAA ruling made it overwhelmingly clear that the ruling will not allow any university to treat student-athletes as employees, nor will they be allowed to be paid for playing time. 

But if a student-athlete’s collegiate career is already given shape by money handed over (and under) the table, how are athletes expected to be students with the additional pressures of sponsorships and endorsements? In the short term, this measure might allow student-athletes to endorse endeavors that arise out of their own creativity and genius, like the student-athletes who sought waivers. 

Over the long term, I worry that this measure will create an expectation, or even a culture, of sponsorships for student-athletes. It may make the transition from collegiate to professional athletics a little easier, but it will certainly make being a student more difficult.

Most of all, I worry that the pull of marketing and sponsorship will trickle down into the high-school arena. In the world of self-promotion offered by social media, who is to stop it from doing so? 

When I saw the New York Times article on April 29 explaining the new ruling, I immediately sent a picture of the article to my cross-country and track coach, Nick Schneigert. 

“Insane,” he responded.

“Does that mean I can start working on my nuun sponsorship?” I joked, referring to an electrolyte drink supplement.

“Hey you get nuun and you can hook us up!” he quipped back.

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