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Bruce DowbigginWhat were the burghers who run California doing instead of upgrading their power grid?

Let me see. Banning fur? Check. Undocumented aliens on state boards and commissions? Check. Allowing college sports stars to get paid for the use of their likeness? Check.

Really? After all this time, they’re going to let the top performers in big-time college finally get paid as much as the coaches? Heresy!

Actually, in a sea of detritus Gov. Gavin Newsom may actually have found something of value. The bill, signed into law, prohibits the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from barring a university from competition if its athletes are compensated for the use of their name, image or likeness beginning on Jan. 1, 2023. In short, the days of not sharing the revenues from pictures, videos and digital products are gone.

And it will have ramifications for Canadian student athletes and the hockey leagues that compete with the NCAA for talent.

The move by America’s most populous (and progressive) state forced the hand of the NCAA, which governs athletics and student-athletes in the United States. (You may have heard of their sterling standards in allowing the decidedly unathletic daughters of Lori Loughlin to win scholarships for sports there’d never played.)

So, starting in 2023, the schools will have to come up with a formula for sharing the billions being raked in by video games, advertising, and television and digital broadcasting.

It will mark the end of a decades-long struggle by athletes to get a piece of this action. Previously the NCAA and the media sweats who apologize for it have said that a scholarship to a highly-ranked school should be sufficient compensation for putting their bodies on the line for anywhere from one to four years of eligibility. Thousands of Canadians and hundreds of thousands of Americans have made this deal with devil over the years.

The NCAA zealously pursued this simon-pure standard with an investigative force that rooted out side deals, phoney jobs and payments to relatives from the boosters of the schools. Billions have been spent on making sure that not even a dime made its way to future millionaires before they turned professional. Many tried. Few succeeded in supplanting this scheme.

The concept made some sense as long as sports was a break-even proposition at the collegiate level. But as revenues exploded into the billions with schools and coaches becoming rich off the labours of college sports, the inequity was glaring. The NCAA cracked the $1-billion annual mark in revenues in 2018. Most of that revenue was realized by two men’s sports, football and basketball. In effect, they financed the entire structure of other sports for men and women.

Critics of the California legislation like to point out that a U.S. college education is no small bauble on the tree. Tuition, lodging, food and exposure to the market via a star career are hardly negligible. Just ask the graduates who now face debts in the hundreds of thousands after graduating.

Most importantly, the pro sports leagues such as the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League went along with the narrative. They refused to accept any deviance from rules set out by the NCAA unless under extreme pressure in the courts.

For a long while, that logic held. Outside revenues were limited to a few sources. But the explosion in digital and video games was the final straw for athletes who sought to prevent schools from using their images forever. The battle to control their own images switched to the new technology.

The first salvo was fired by former college basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who launched a class-action suit challenging the NCAA on its use of his image. In 2014, a district judge found for O’Bannon, holding that the NCAA’s rules and bylaws operate as an unreasonable restraint of trade, in violation of antitrust law. EA Sports, the giant in the video game industry, finalized a $40-million settlement to as many as 100,000 current and former athletes who had appeared in EA Sports‘ video games since 2003.

The NCAA fought on in the courts, but since California’s move they’ve conceded the hopelessness of the fight. Student athletes will be able to accept revenues from the licensing of their names, images and likenesses in the future.

Now what happens? Will all NCAA athletes prosper?

Not likely. The star athletes who dominate their sports will likely argue for the lion’s share of the money available. The digital companies may decide to abandon using these athletes in their games to avoid payments.

For Canadian hockey players contemplating whether to play junior or choose the NCAA, the prospect of exploiting their image might tilt the choice in favour of the NCAA. Why ride the buses and beat yourself up playing up to 100 games a year when you can play 40 games in the U.S. and cash royalty cheques? For elite players, it could dictate their choice.

In general, the prospect of being remunerated nicely in college could also encourage young prospects from leaving so quickly for the pros. Today many rush to the pros (with poor results) because the money to be made is too appealing.

But if you can refine your game for the pros without living a spartan existence in school, it might keep players in school.

Like the Olympics did decades ago, the NCAA is abandoning its simon-pure amateur standard. Only a fool will gamble on where it goes next.

Did we say gambling?

That’s another column.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

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