A historic rule change by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) will create a brand-new playing field for student-athletes by giving them control over the profits they generate.  

Sound crazy?  Or is it brilliant? It’s probably a little of both. And as the father of a college athlete, I’m more than a little intrigued.  I’m also concerned that it will encourage our students to focus less on their education, despite the underlying unfairness that the rule change is addressing in the current system.

In September 2019, California passed a law that effectively allows student-athletes to profit from endorsements and the use of their likeness. Over two dozen states are considering similar legislation, including most recently Colorado. This impending patchwork of regulations has put pressure on the NCAA to reconsider its prohibition on student-athletes profiting from their fame and notoriety. 

Although they have not yet announced concrete changes, the NCAA has signaled that it is beginning the process and will likely allow its student-athletes to own their IP and profit from it at some point in the near future. 

Part of the reasoning behind the prior prohibition on allowing athletes to profit from their fame was to emphasize the student part of the student-athlete.  The no-profit rule was designed to avoid the athlete entering into the professional realm while they are still pursuing a degree. The intent was that everything should be done so as to favor their education and athletics should provide an opportunity for that education, not an alternative to that education.

In the past, profits from a student athlete’s likeness belonged to their school. For Division 1 athletes in high profile sports such as football and basketball, that translates to a lot of money and a full ride to the college for every athlete on that team. In fact there are only six sports where all the scholarships are full ride. These so-called head-count sports are football, men and women’s basketball, and women’s gymnastics, volleyball, and tennis. This change is an acknowledgement that these schools are profiting tremendously from these athletes. And even though high profile student-athletes receive scholarships, they don’t come anywhere near what schools are making off of their athlete’s fame.

But compare that to all of the other less prominent sports like track and field, where the number of scholarships available are much less and often divided among the many members of the team.  For instance, women’s Division 1 track and field programs are allowed to offer 18 scholarships per year. The men’s side only gets 12.6. Divide that by 4-5 years of athletes at the school at any given time and somewhere around 40-50 athletes on the squad (cross country is combined with the track and field athletes) and that works out to around 0.1 tuition scholarships per athlete if everyone on the team is given something.  The math gets worse for other sports. Bowling and Fencing only get 5 scholarships. Even in these sports though, the superstars are usually given much more of the pie so most of the athletes are given nothing in terms of an athletic scholarship, yet still need to commit 20-25 hours a week (if not more) to training, travel and competition. Now the whole, “athletics is an opportunity for an education” doesn’t make as much sense.  And the prospect of making a few extra bucks for all of that work, well that sounds pretty good . . .

College Athletic Scholarship Limits

Cereal Boxes and Scholarships

For athletes in high profile sports, this means they can engage in talent contracts with advertisers to appear on cereal boxes and video games and in magazine articles and social media. They can also accept endorsements and make money off of their own fame, just like any other athlete or celebrity might be able to do. For some of the more well-known student-athletes in high profile sports like football and basketball, this could potentially mean millions of dollars. And athletes who might otherwise be “one and done” with their college career, may just stay in school longer.

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The new rules could impact athletes in less high-profile sports as well. My daughter is a Division One runner. She receives little in the way of an athletic scholarship, but she’s still subject to all NCAA rules. She puts in that same amount of time for the benefit of the team and the team uses her likeness on its own social media accounts and recruiting collateral.  It would be great if she could have an Instagram account on the side that chronicles her running and her experiences as an athlete, while creating some revenue as well. The current rules prohibit all of that.

There are ingenious ways to monetize social media presence now that could help athletes like my daughter pay for their education. It doesn’t have to be about an endorsement from Nike or Gatorade.

Keeping the Focus on Education

The NCAA rules were put in place originally to ensure that student-athletes focused on school, and there is an argument that allowing students to profit will reduce the focus on getting an education. 

This conversation is not necessarily about millions of dollars a year. It could be a few thousand dollars a year for clicks on Instagram or Snapchat. Students could become Instagram influencers just because of what they’re doing in a minor sport. That could help pay for college, especially in sports where there’s not a full-ride scholarship for every athlete. 

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In the major sports like football and basketball, everyone is on a scholarship. Many other athletes in sports like running and swimming and fencing, however, get nothing. This rule change has significant potential to get these athletes through college debt free (or at least debt reduced) and get a better education, rather than it becoming a job and an alternative to school.

This is because the NCAA does a great job of keeping the focus on the student and not just the athlete. You can’t play if you’re not keeping up academically. There are tutors and organizations available to help ensure student success. Most athletes from lower tier sports are not going professional, so they have more of an incentive to stay in school. These rule changes could help these students with extra income but also help promote their sports. 

A Bit of Madness Before the Genius 

There are likely to be disputes, and as with any other IP owner new to the game, student-athletes will likely make mistakes. It may commercialize college sports more than they are now. And there are likely to be agents and other professionals involved in the process.  Maybe even an IP attorney. Hopefully my daughter knows where to find a good one . . . 

The new NCAA rules are not in place yet. However, the NCAA has essentially declared that they intend to let athletes do this across the three different levels of divisions in NCAA sports. It remains to be seen what they might put in place and how it is rolled out. 

There will probably be a little chaos while rules are tested and everything gets figured out. In the end though, this could be a great move that will help less prominent athletes pay for their schooling and provide an incentive to keep high profile athletes in school.