The NCAA is two things.
It is the organizer, arbiter and governing body of most college sports in this country and a punching bag.
There’s a certain amount of irony, for it’s reviled mostly for being slow, secretive, inconsistent, behind the times, unaccountable and out of touch.
Yet, because it is those last two things, unaccountable and out of touch, it hardly seems to notice how upsetting it is to everybody to be so slow, secretive, inconsistent and behind the times and thus, perhaps, nothing changes.
On Wednesday, the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors, mostly made up of college presidents and the organization’s primary rules-making committee, acted upon the recommendation of the NCAA’s Division I Council to temporarily “suspend amateurism rules.”
It went with it.
The temporary part does not allude to a window in which “amateurism rules” as the NCAA has long defined them, will snap back into being.
Instead, the NCAA is hoping Congress, in the not-too-distant future, will create a federal law circumventing the several state laws going into effect this week allowing college athletes to profit off their celebrity or, in the language of many of the laws, their name, image and likeness; or, if you like acronyms, NIL.
Those laws, passed by state legislatures in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas, while governors have issued executive orders in other states, have left the NCAA scrambling. Or, perhaps, the opposite of scrambling.
Because what the Division I Board of Directors actually did on Wednesday was nothing to get ahead of the issue, passing something uniform that might govern the way athletes may profit off their NIL, but merely a directive begging institutions in states not to have passed such laws to make their own rules until their states do or, glory, a federal law passes.
Most commentary about it, rather than examining what it means, has tended to pillory the NCAA for trying to maintain an antiquated system decades past its usefulness in which scholarships are payment enough and a college athlete’s ability to earn money, be it as a performer or off their NIL, shall come only after that athlete exits college; meanwhile, if schools like Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, UCLA, Duke, Kentucky and Bowling Green, and every university in between, can make a killing off those athletes’ NIL rather than the athletes themselves, well, how else will Nick Saban’s, Lincoln Riley’s or Coach K’s exorbitant contracts ever be paid?
There is hardly any sympathy for the NCAA. Not only is it behind the times on gender equity, it’s way behind them on athletes’ rights, too.
There is some, here, however, because what did you expect the NCAA to do? What might it have done instead?
Detail, right now, the outline of any state or federal law that might give athletes the ability to profit off their NIL, yet regulate it, too.
The NCAA has not punted.
It is trapped.
Regulating, by definition, means limiting, and in the face of laws giving athletes the freedom to earn off their NIL, a constitutional right they probably always should have had, any attempt by the body that once enforced an opposite system, is bound to fail.
Having no good answers, what the NCAA’s really done is washed its hands of it.
The Wild West.
Could a billionaire fan pay a fantastic quarterback a million bucks to conduct an autograph session, figuring that quarterback would therefore never enter his name in the transfer portal?
Forget the session, could that same billionaire purchase a single autograph for the same sum?
Again, why not.
Could athletes create their own YouTube channels or, better, their own Patreon channels, in which commerce is up front, monetize them into the millions and suddenly have every reason to remain in college until their eligibility is exhausted, foregoing the pros until they’re the only place to go.
Could the aforementioned Saban, seeking to limit distraction, create Tide team rules severely limiting players’ ability to make extra dough off their NIL and wind up chasing prospects to other programs, threatening Alabama’s perch at the top?
He could, but the athletes he chases away could become locker room cancers, putting earning power in front of the team, torpedoing those programs, too.
Could a generational talent like Randy Moss, or the next Randy Moss, head to Marshall, as Moss did, or someplace like it and become the toast of the nation, as Moss did, playing on Wednesdays in the MAC, creating a national market for his NIL, while Gators’ and Longhorns’ and Buckeyes’ cash-drawing abilities tend to be limited to Gainesville, Austin and Columbus, because an LSU fan is unlikely to pay for content created by a Georgia Bulldog, but might have no such qualms handing money to an Akron Zip
Hard to know.
So hard to know.
The only thing clear is we’re bound to find out and along the way, college sports, from sea to sea and football to rowing, is bound to become something, for better or worse, we can’t begin to imagine.