The brotherhood that Ohio State coaches and players always reference could be headed for a Cain vs. Abel showdown.
Call it the law of unintended consequences. Star cornerback vs. star defensive end; who gets more moolah? Who appears on the commercials that generate the most exposure? How does pay based on fame affect team culture? There is no “I” in team, but there is a “me.”
The NCAA continued to modernize Tuesday when its Board of Governors voted unanimously to permit athletes to benefit financially from the use of their name, image and likeness. The vote is another positive step toward the organization joining the 21st century by empowering athletes beyond “You get a scholarship, what else do you want?”
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For me, it’s a fairness issue. If Alabama coach Nick Saban can profit by appearing on AFLAC commercials, an athlete should be able to make money off his or her fame. We’re not talking just football and basketball, either. A volleyball player might endorse her particular brand of knee pads, or a swimmer his Speedo.
Or take it outside of sports. If an esports major can accept money for appearing at a video game convention, why can’t a women’s basketball player earn income off her likeness?
Remember that paying athletes for their name, likeness or image is not the same as paying them to play. The money will not come from the schools but from outside sources looking for marketing exposure.
Still, while I endorse athletes benefiting off their name, image and likeness, let’s not be naïve: Amateur sports could be entering a minefield that is nearly impossible for schools to manage.
I say “could” only because no one knows what the NCAA’s final plan will look like. It’s possible schools will limit how much money athletes can collect. Or the NCAA could rule that all money must go into a trust fund to be used later (expect lawsuits to push back against such a scenario).
But regardless of where this ultimately leads, the decades-old amateur model, which already slouches toward professionalism, is in for huge challenges.
Take recruiting, for example. A five-star tailback with a winning personality may be drawn to UCLA, where its proximity to the Los Angeles marketing machine gives the Bruins a promotional advantage over most schools. Oregon, with its ties to Nike, has a built-in benefactor that can throw millions at Ducks athletes. And high school athletes know it.
“What you call unintended consequences we refer to as inequities,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who co-chaired the NCAA task force that studied the issue.
"We have 1,100 schools in all divisions," he added. "Everyone recruits, so how do we create a system that we are comfortable managing and that offers a level playing field?”
On the other hand, the difference between an Ohio State and Eastern Michigan already is great; it’s not like that will change.
The bigger concern is how it affects locker room chemistry. What happens when the freshman point guard makes $50,000 during an autograph-signing session and the senior receiver makes $500? Or when the third-string linebacker makes $100,000 in endorsement money because he shines on camera like a Hollywood celebrity, while the All-America linebacker with a face for radio makes $70 for getting his photo taken sitting on a tractor?
Coaches preach about the need for athletes to be unselfish, but human nature already works against that concept. With endorsement money entering the picture, “I deserve” may become the mantra in college sports.
“Those are concerns — inequities that are created because of what gets passed,” Smith said.
And yet this change needed to happen in some way. Now it’s up to NCAA and school administrators to make it work. That’s why they’re paid the big bucks. It’s sure not for their name, image or likeness.