Landmark NCAA decision opens door for payment of student-athletes

Oct. 29, 2019, 6:01 p.m.

After years of debate, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Board of Governors voted unanimously on Tuesday in favor of a landmark decision that clears the way for college athletes to begin profiting from their name, image and likeness. The policy will still prohibit payment for performance or participation, but it signals an abrupt shift in NCAA policy in favor of student-athlete autonomy. 

The policy, which comes as a response to California’s  Senate Bill 206 (SB 206), mandates that the NCAA’s three divisions — Division I, Division II and Division III — consider lifting pre-existing bans on athlete payment no later than January 2021. This means current Stanford juniors, sophomores and freshmen could potentially benefit from the change.  

It is unclear how these changes will directly impact Stanford and its student-athletes in the short-term, but University spokesperson E.J. Miranda said the unanimous vote “is a positive step towards such progress.”

“We stand ready to work with the NCAA, the Pac-12 Conference, California officials and others to move toward reform that supports our student-athletes and ensures that they continue to compete and thrive in national collegiate athletics,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said NCAA Board Chair and Ohio State University President Michael Drake in a statement.

In Tuesday’s statement, the NCAA said the policies will be implemented “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” Exact policy details have not yet been determined, but they are expected to alter and restructure collegiate athletics immensely. Up until now, the NCAA had insisted that college athletes are amateurs who should not financially profit from their sport.

In the 2018-19 fiscal year alone, the NCAA reported earning over a billion dollars in revenue, and the players producing those profits did not see a penny. The groundbreaking decision, however, now opens up possibilities for sponsorships or endorsements, which were previously prohibited. It also allows smaller paid opportunities like youth coaching positions or signing autographs for money, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Some opponents argue that the change is not necessary because athletes can instead turn professional and give up collegiate eligibility. Some Stanford athletes have followed this path, including Katie Ledecky ’20 — but according to the NCAA, only 2% of college athletes ultimately compete professionally.

“College is the only time [these athletes] have to profit off their hard-earned athletic successes,” said former Stanford volleyball player Hayley Hodson ’19 during legislative testimony in July.

Although it’s been debated for decades, in recent months the question of whether or not to pay student athletes has gained serious momentum, with California legislature leading the charge. In a move that threatened the industry standard pay ban, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 206 in September, which allowed athletes attending schools within the state, including student-athletes at Stanford, to earn endorsement and sponsorship money. Other states have proposed measures similar to California’s so-called “Fair Pay to Play Act” to pressure the billion-dollar organization, but California is the only state to pass a bill into law. 

SB 206, which was signed nearly a month ago, prohibits the NCAA from barring a university from competition if its athletes are compensated for the use of their name, image or likeness beginning Jan. 1, 2023. Almost immediately, dozens of California universities — including Stanford — opposed the bill, citing fears that they would be forced to increase costs to ensure compliance with the law and lead to fines or even expulsion from the NCAA. Newsom initially faced backlash from multiple university presidents and athletic boosters, who contacted him to urge him to veto the bill, according to The Los Angeles Times. 

At first, the NCAA pushed back on the California law and just three weeks ago called it “harmful,” “unconstitutional” and a “scheme” — following the signing of SB 206, the NCAA appeared as if it would fight the law in court and potentially bar state schools from competition. However, its change of heart elucidates a gray area for universities and reveals a new direction for the organization that oversees 1,100 campuses and nearly half a million student-athletes nationwide. By passing its own legislation, the NCAA ensures that rules governing collegiate athletics will be uniform nationally.

The NCAA notes that the new rules must maintain a distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities and must “protect the recruiting environment,” though the new decision will undoubtedly implicitly influence recruiting decisions as prospective athletes might choose a school based on where he or she can make more money. The NCAA also said that the upcoming rules must reaffirm that athletes are not university employees, an argument that the organization previously used to oppose athlete unionization.

“Structuring a model for allowing students to monetize a name, image and likeness while maintaining some recruiting balance is one of the biggest and hardest issues that everyone’s dealing with,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert in an interview with CNN.

In many ways, however, the NCAA decision raises more questions than it answers. It is still unclear if the money used to pay athletes will be reallocated from teams or conferences or if it will come from a new revenue pool all together. Another economic question raised is that of taxation, which also is to be determined.

The NCAA’s altered stance could be transformative for future athletes, especially minorities and those from low-income backgrounds. With the extra incentive of potential pay, more students may be willing to pursue collegiate athletics instead of immediately seeking employment. Many proponents also cite expanded opportunities for female athletes, who otherwise have limited paid, professional opportunities in sports due to greater societal inequity. 

Many professional athletes spoke out in support of the NCAA’s change on Tuesday including Los Angeles Laker LeBron James. 

“Athletes at every level deserve to be empowered and to be fairly compensated for their work, especially in a system where so many are profiting off of their talents,” James said when SB 206 was initially passed. “Part of the reason I went to the NBA was to get my mom out of the situation she was in. I couldn’t have done that in college with the current rules in place.”

Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’

Cybele Zhang '22 J.D. '26 is a Senior Staff Writer from Los Angeles. As an undergraduate, she double majored in English Literature with Honors and German Studies and served as Sports Editor — Vol. 255, 257 and 258.

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