The definition of Pandora’s Box, according to Merriam-Webster’s, is “a prolific source of troubles; something that will lead to many problems.”
By adopting a new policy for student-athletes that allows them to accept compensation — called “NIL” for “Name, Image and Likeness” — the NCAA, as well as the rest of the grown-ups in the room (state and federal legislators) just created a big new source of troubles.
This is sure to lead to many, many problems for student-athletes.
As a former student-athlete, former college athletic administrator and kid who grew up far below the poverty line, I’m actually torn by the NCAA’s decision, adopted on July 1, to allow student-athletes to benefit financially from their name, image and likeness. My mom and I sure could have used an extra $10, $100 or $1,000 back when I was a student-athlete. But that opportunity didn’t exist in 1987, the year I received a football scholarship to the University of Notre Dame.
So I generally favor allowing student-athletes to be compensated in big-time college sports, but it should be done properly, in a safe environment, not in the “Wild West” manner of the NCAA’s new policy. The NCAA just told 18-to-21-year-olds to go out and get endorsement deals, do appearances and market themselves — and, hey, don’t forget to pay your taxes on all that.
Let’s be real. Only a handful of players — quarterbacks, running backs and a few others — will make the “big bucks.” Most other student-athletes won’t.
Don’t worry, that won’t cause any drama in the locker room.
At face value, this opportunity looks pretty good. A student-athlete can sign autographs at the local supermarket, while another student-athlete signs a shoe/apparel contract and yet a third says, “If you send me $10, I’ll send you an autographed photo.”
But who is going to administer all of this? Who is going to police all the possible ways student-athletes could be exploited?
Some colleges and universities have said they’ll hire someone to manage al this; others say they’ll outsource the job. But will they? These are the same schools still trying to recover from the unexpected costs and layoffs created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What about the school that simply can’t afford to hire more staff? Will responsibility for managing all these instant small business decisions now fall solely on the student-athlete?
At 12:01 a.m. on July 1, several student-athletes announced they had formed their own businesses to handle their marketing and endorsements. Really? When I played for the Chicago Bears, I hired a professional marketing firm to handle this stuff. Not a bunch of pals. Not a parent.
Do student-athletes even have time for this?
The NCAA has been arguing for years that student-athletes don’t have enough time even to be students. To go to classes. To hit the books. But now they’re supposed to handle marketing, endorsements and a schedule of personal experiences?
What will be their office hours? What will happen to their grades? If there’s an opportunity to make some money during class time, what will be their priority?
It all threatens to become a huge distraction from education — and from sports — for student-athletes. And we all know how much coaches love distractions.
Is there a solution? Is there a more workable balance? There is, and I’ve been preaching it for years.
Rather than be completely freed to market themselves individually, with all the pitfalls that presents, student-athletes should receive a straight-up percentage of the revenue from their respective sport. Colleges and universities pull in billions from sports — from broadcast rights, merchandising rights, sponsorships and the like — and there’s no reason in the world student-athletes should not share in that.
And that money then should be put into a trust that the student-athletes can’t touch until they are 28 to 30 years old. When they are in a better and more mature place in life to handle the money responsibly.
Any alternative, to be honest, looks better than what the NCAA has just done: Told student-athletes they finally can do something, but given them no guidance or assistance in how to do it.
The grown-ups in the room should have spent more time thinking this through — how to responsibly roll out a new era of financial compensation for student-athletes — rather than just throw open Pandora’s Box.
But, instead, the NCAA has left it to the student-athletes to figure this mess out, while dodging a bullet itself. Because, with this new NIL policy, they won’t have to share one dollar of their own billions in revenue.
Isn’t that ironic?
Christopher Zorich, who played defensive tackle for the Chicago Bears from 1991 to 1996, is a partner at the executive search firm Randall Partners.
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