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Even the Supreme Court Can’t Save the N.C.A.A. From Itself

March 21, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

By Bomani Jones

Mr. Jones is the host of “Game Theory with Bomani Jones” on HBO.

The N.C.A.A. is the easiest target in sports, and that’s entirely its own fault. Decades of defending a system premised on the unpaid labor of its athletes — a system that Walter Byers, one of its architects, later regretfully compared to a “neo-plantation” — has whittled the N.C.A.A.’s credibility to near nonexistence.

The latest debacle is the market for names, images and likenesses, known as N.I.L. New rules allow players to earn money for endorsements and appearances, and some of the biggest basketball stars in this year’s March Madness tournament, from Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky to Drew Timme of Gonzaga, have already cashed in on lucrative deals.

But the N.I.L. market, which was supposed to empower players, is raging out of control. The N.C.A.A. had years to prepare for this new day but chose not to. Now it’s hoping that state and federal legislators will do the regulating for it. All of the N.C.A.A.’s kicking and screaming — first to prevent N.I.L. payments, now for Congress to step in — has been to prevent even outside third parties from paying its workers. That falls somewhere between cruelty and outright hatred.

The discussion around these new revenue opportunities only diverts attention from the N.C.A.A.’s original sin: its refusal to share its profits directly with the players most responsible for generating those profits. N.I.L. doesn’t fix that. In fact, it highlights just how negligent the N.C.A.A. has been.

The N.I.L. market exists thanks to a 2021 Supreme Court decision in the case of N.C.A.A. v. Alston, which declared that previous rules limiting athlete compensation violated antitrust laws. So N.I.L. was born: a system that allows players not to be paid for playing but to be paid instead for sponsorships, endorsement deals and appearances. What resulted was perhaps the N.C.A.A.’s biggest nightmare: a world where its players weren’t completely broke and powerless.

While N.I.L. grabs the headlines, the N.C.A.A. is also lobbying Congress against reforms that would ensure that players are recognized as employees of the schools they play for. This recognition would benefit all players, not simply those famous enough to sell products using their names. It would be a step toward future health care for student-athletes. It would be the first true recognition of what these players provide their schools: hard work.

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Meanwhile, the N.I.L. doomsayers who swore paying athletes would lead to chaos have had their fever dreams realized. The once clandestine practice of funneling payments to players through shady middlemen has been replaced by donor collectives — groups organized by college boosters to seek opportunities for players to monetize their N.I.L. rights. Which is to say, they comprise middlemen with business cards.

Take the case of Jaden Rashada. A highly touted high school quarterback recruit from California, Rashada committed first to the University of Miami in June 2022. He would receive, reportedly, an N.I.L. package that would pay him $9 million.

Then the University of Florida offered him a package worth a reported $13.85 million, and he changed his allegiance.

That money — from the Gator Collective, a group of donors who support the team — was supposedly for N.I.L. licensing, but it would have offered him A-list Hollywood compensation for doing as little as send a tweet. But as it turns out, the point is moot.

The Gator Collective reneged on its offer. The reasons were unclear. What was clear was that, just days before National Signing Day and after most schools had chosen quarterbacks for that recruiting cycle, Rashada’s options were slim.

Rashada eventually signed to play at Arizona State, and his N.I.L. valuation has sunk to about $400,000.

That outcome is utter madness, but by no means unique.

This is a reminder that, as always, the players are the most vulnerable parties in college sports. The players have no lobbying group to combat the N.C.A.A. in Congress. And while the N.C.A.A. is waiting on someone else to fix the problem, the players are merely pawns in a big business that’s looking for more help from big government.

Once asked where its bylaws addressed the rights of its athletes, an N.C.A.A. compliance officer at the University of North Carolina could reply only, “That’s a good question.”

While the N.C.A.A. stalls and the players wait, we cannot lose sight of the real problem: The N.C.A.A.’s model is so fraught that the Supreme Court ruled against it in a 9-0 decision — so it’s the rare thing that Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor all find noxious.

N.I.L. reform is a start. But even though the N.C.A.A. has lost that fight in the courts, the players remain outgunned. The N.C.A.A. is still legalized exploitation.

And that won’t change because a few athletes get to do a couple of commercials.

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