Paid to Play

by Sam Bernstein

NCAA should allow their athletes to profit off of likeness

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Lamelo Ball decided to play in Australia due to being disqualified from NCAA basketball after making money from his family's brand, Big Baller Band.

Imagine being a top car salesman and grossing your company millions of dollars each year, but you don’t make a penny off of any of the sales you make. This would seem unfair, right? Apply this idea to the debate over college athletes’ control over their name, image, and likeness (NIL). NIL, in essence, is the idea that players can profit off of themselves through endorsements and jersey sales, in addition to whatever money they make off of their contracts for their league. However in the NCAA, athletes are not paid salaries, and they are not allowed to have endorsements, even though those athletes gross the schools millions of dollars. The NCAA should give college athletes power over their NIL because it is unfair to withhold the money athletes gross, to keep up with individual state legislature, and to attract top athletes to continue playing college sports.

The NCAA is exploiting their college athletes for their benefit. The rules in the NCAA states that the players cannot profit off of their NIL, but that does not mean coaches and schools cannot. School and the NCAA have a monopoly over the top young talent, which means that they profit off of the upcoming athletes before the athletes have the opportunity to make money off their NIL. Examples of schools profiting off their athletes include college coaches having camps with their star athletes as the coaches, sales from college athletes’ jerseys, and other promotional opportunities that star talent attracts. Initially, the NCAA instituted this rule as a way to encourage players to go to college for the sake of their education, but it is obvious that this rule no longer applies to athletes as their worth is much higher. Now, multiple college athletes have sued for their right to receive money off of these promotions, but the NCAA has yet to change policy.

This issue has been around for a long time, but changes in recent years that have caused the NCAA to rethink policy. The State of California signed a bill that will allow athletes to make money off of their NIL in 2023 but with certain restrictions, such as non-conflicting endorsements depending on the school and rules that forbid schools from directly paying athletes. But why are states now taking NIL issues to their legislative floors? The answer is simple: it's a game of numbers. States that can attract top athletes to their state schools could make a lot of money, which means more resources for that school. Regardless of whether the college is public or private, universities also provide business for local economies, so the more students enroll, the more money colleges make. With more profits from sporting events, colleges can offer more resources and attract more students. With more competitive teams, more people will watch the games, which means more business for local towns. Not only would the states benefit from implementing legislation ensuring their athletes control their NIL, but the athletes would also benefit. For both the states and the athletes, it is a win-win.

Athletes are tired of waiting for the NCAA to give them power over their NIL, so they have simply skipped the NCAA. In recent years, many top athletes, especially in basketball, have forgone college sports to play professionally, thus controlling their NIL and getting paid. In the past year, 2 of the top 5 high school players decided to forgo college and participate in the G-league, the equivalent of the minor league of the NBA. This decision means that the players have the opportunity to sign multi-million dollar contracts for endorsements, get paid by the league they play in, and still compete at the highest level. A great example of a trailblazer in this field is Lamelo Ball, who was a highly-touted prospect but forwent his college eligibility to play basketball in Lithuania.

While there was skepticism about if Ball was truly ready for pro basketball without college, his performance this past year silenced many of the critics. In 2019 and 2020, Ball played so well in the NBL – Australia and New Zealand’s pro basketball league – that scouts now prospect him to be a top-five in the draft. Ball proved his worth for his future in the NBA, while increasing his net worth with endorsements and contracts from the NBL. For most of the top recruits, they know that their future will be in the NBA. Without the ability to make money off of their image, it is in the player’s financial interest to play pro before entering a draft to both get paid and continue recruiting exposure. College adds maturity to players, but why be mature when you can gross millions of dollars off of your presence on a team?

The NCAA has put off changing their policy for athletes to profit off of themselves for far too long. Whether it is to preserve their powerful grip over young athletes or because they believe that college athletes should go to school for the benefit of an education, the NCAA now must take action to keep up with the legislature set forth by politicians. Until college athletics return in full, all eyes will be on the NCAA to capitalize on this newfound time to give their athletes what they deserve: power over their image.