In an old college town like Columbus, where the great state university reigned as all-powerful for more than a century, the idea of the "student-athlete" can be sacrosanct.
Some among us, then, were clutching their pearls Wednesday when the NCAA Board of Governors took a step toward allowing said "student-athletes" to cash in on their names, images and likenesses.
Let go of your pearls. This was inevitable. And it’s only the beginning.
The big-time college sports model is based on unpaid labor generating billions of dollars for the NCAA, its corporate sponsors and its member institutions. For decades, this system has been under increasing strain because, beyond being unfair, it may well prove illegal.
Indentured servitude is so 18th century. Ed O’Bannon, et al., who challenged the NCAA on name, images and likeness rights, is only the latest case to cut into the legally shaky grounds of college imagery.
The NCAA, like any "nonprofit" generating boatloads of money, has long contorted itself in an effort to preserve its hegemony — specifically its hold on minor league football and basketball, its cash cows.
It’s a cynical pursuit. As sports economist Andrew Zimbalist pointed out many years ago, the NCAA coined the term "student-athlete" to "fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players." Which is to say that "student-athlete" was a legal cover cloaked in nobility.
In 1984, the University of Oklahoma sued the NCAA for restraint of trade — and won the right to keep more of its football profits. In the 36 years since, the Power Five conferences have taken control of the bowl system, which generates a lot more than the $1 billion the NCAA earns annually on March Madness.
That former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones once tweeted, "we ain’t come here to play SCHOOL" is testimony to the system. That Jones eventually got his degree is a testimony to the man.
If he had exercised his rights as an American citizen to make a few bucks as a YouTube influencer while he was 12-gauging the Buckeyes to a national championship, it would not have changed the system and it would not have changed the man. At the time, though, it would have made him ineligible.
It was during the Carter administration when the Olympics were forced to finally shed a veneer of amateurism and open up to professionals. Not much changed. The NCAA now begins a much slower process which it’ll continue to fight to reverse a similar hypocrisy. Not much will change.
The smarter institutions will roll with it.
Ohio State has one athletic director — Gene Smith, whose full title is "Senior Vice President & Wolfe Foundation Endowed Athletics Director" — with a base salary of $1 million. His department includes 35 others with "athletic director" in their titles. Don’t stop there.
Smith ought to expand his directory of directors to include a new department of, oh, let’s call it "Brand Aid." For a university that has fought to trademark "The," such a department is a no-brainer.
It would be staffed with experts in helping "student-athletes" sell their names, images and likenesses, and maximize their NIL profits. The concentration should be on football players, whose work pays for all the Executive, Executive Associate, Deputy, Senior Associate and Associate Athletic Directors, not to mention the rest of the athletic department.
Coach Ryan Day’s salary ($5.4 million this year, $6.5 million in 2021 and $7.6 million in 2022) is supported by revenue from Nike, among other athletic sponsors to the university.
According to the website Investopedia, Nike pulls in more than $30 billion in annual net operating revenues. Justin Fields, to name one, is entitled to some of that couch change. Damn straight he is. He should have his own personal Brand Aid director, an Executive Associate Deputy at the very least.
It’ll pay to be in front of institutions who are slow to adapt. Think of the recruiting. Also think of a potentially positive effect on women’s sports. We remain stuck in an era when many of the best female athletes are on their biggest stage during NCAA competitions. Help them brand themselves, and their sports. Grant them power that should be inherent.