- - Monday, May 4, 2020

The biggest news to hit the sports world in decades was announced last week by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA): Student athletes will soon be free to earn money from endorsements.

Well, sort of.

The NCAA, the body governing university sports in the United States, is worth an estimated billion dollars. It employs 500 people, and boasts 1,098 colleges and universities, including 102 athletic conferences, as members. It purports — read this carefully — to be “dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.”

To date, however, the nearly half-million college athletes kicking, running, swimming, hooping, tackling and generally gyrating about under its auspices have never, ever been compensated for the gobs of money they drive into the coffers of their universities and the association itself. The rules are so stringent students are prevented from using their own names, images and likeness to make a living.

This predatory — and that’s really the appropriate word here — system, far too lucrative to hitherto have allowed moral considerations to get in the way, has thrived since 1906. So imagine our collective surprise when, just this past week, the NCAA’s Board of Governors announced it would (subject to the almost forgone agreement by the three NCAA divisions), during the start of the 2021-22 school year, allow players to begin receiving compensation in the form of endorsements, third-party deals, social media initiatives, you name it.

With the exception of just a few rules (so far) — players cannot use their university logos for promotion, schools will not pay athletes, transactions must be disclosed, etc. — this financial liberation is long overdue.

Now, the NCAA did not come to the idea of athlete economic freedom out of the goodness of its heart. It’s long been bandied about, there just hasn’t been, as there is now in many states, legislative and legal pressure to make any changes. (Social pressure has long been ignored.)

There are obvious dangers in the brave new world of college athlete compensation. Corruption, already an issue in collegiate sports, will undoubtedly take on new and sinister forms. Young men and women, with no financial education, away from home for the first time, will suddenly find themselves with more money than they can handle. The love of the game will give way to fidelity to the local car dealership, the community big-wig booster or worse. The trappings of excess will bring many to ruin. And finally, the NCAA will certainly, for a time at least, wiggle out of the demand from some quarters to pay players directly.

On the flip side, many athletes will help their families rise out of dire economic circumstances. They will get compensated for their hard work. And if schools do the right thing and offer free financial counseling, they will gain a step-up from their classmates in money management. Innovative schools and local business leaders will find ways to work together to economically bolster underfunded sports, especially women’s sports. The possibility for good is endless.

Of course, much of how this plays out will depend on the manner in which NCAA regulates the new environment. The desire for the organization to retain as much oversight over a players’ life is strong. The alternative — a free market — will cost the organization dearly.

The moral and financial complexities of allowing college players to receive outside endorsement deals, on their face, seem immense. There will be bumps on the road. Scandals are sure to erupt. But at the end of the day, this is about making a grossly unjust system a little fairer. There is no organization besides maybe the United Nations as outwardly virtuous-presenting but inwardly despicable. How and why the NCAA arrived to their decision point last week is a hard to say to confidence. But this liberalizing tendency should be celebrated — and pushed further.

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