NCAA Governing Board Allows College Athletes to Receive Compensation

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On October 29, the NCAA Board of Governors voted to allow Divisions 1, 2 and 3 to permit athletes to receive compensation for their personal brand or celebrity, while not also becoming employees of their university. The three divisions must change their bylaws by January 2021 and with those changes, ensure that athletes will not be classified as professionals. This change of NCAA policy is likely in response to bills like California’s Fair Pay for Play Act, which mandates that athletes receive fair compensation for their work and will take effect in 2023.

The NCAA has been under siege for years. As the governing body for college sports, it has reaped the rewards of sponsorship contracts for broadcasting rights and shared little with the athletes performing on the field, court, track, diamond, course, or arena. Universities belonging to the Big 5 athletic conferences are additional beneficiaries, awarding multi-million dollar contracts to successful coaches and few benefits beyond college scholarships to their athletes. The NCAA’s dual role as regulator and enforcer is arguably influenced by the value of those big network contracts as evidenced by the verdict of no punishment for the University of North Carolina’s athletic program for steering athletes into “paper classes.” On the surface, one can only assume that the NCAA ordered its attorneys to find a loophole to avoid punishing one of college basketball’s perennially strongest programs.

“The wind of change is blowing” is the opening phrase from a speech that UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave to South Africa’s Parliament in 1960, referencing its policy of apartheid. Apartheid formally ended in April of 1994. There have been several player compensation lawsuits against the NCAA, the most famous of which may be the O’Bannon v. NCAA anti-trust case initially won by O’Bannon and his fellow plaintiffs at the District Court level in August 2014. That verdict was partially affirmed and partially reversed at the Appeals Court level in September 2015 and appealed to the Supreme Court, who voted not to hear the case. 

ESPN analyst and former Duke basketball star Jay Bilas said the NCAA had plenty of opportunities to be proactive instead of reactive but instead failed to take the initiative a long time ago, noting that “…This has been coming for a long time. The state government just sped it all up…” 

The O’Bannon case is not the major “wind of change is blowing” date for the NCAA, and I’m not sure what event and date might deserve that tag. Given the level of attention that the NCAA’s policy of no pay for athletes is receiving at the state and federal legislative level, I predict extremely turbulent waters for the next few years, particularly as California’s law goes into effect along with other states considering similar legislation.

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