College Players May Make Money Off Their Fame, Powerful N.C.A.A. Panel Recommends

Pressured by a wave of state laws taking effect on July 1, the college sports industry is on the verge of letting players profit off their names, images and likenesses.

Jordan Bohannon, a men’s basketball player at Iowa, is one of many athletes preparing for rules to change this week on how college athletes may profit from their fame.
Credit...Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

N.C.A.A. leaders on Monday recommended that student-athletes be allowed to make endorsement deals and profit off their names, one of the final steps toward a groundbreaking shift that could direct millions of dollars toward players.

The proposed guidelines, which an influential panel urged just three days before new state laws designed to challenge the N.C.A.A. were to take effect, would let players across the country earn money through autograph signings, personal appearances, endorsements, social media and other deals related to their names, images and likenesses.

Taken together, the state laws and industry rules that will most likely be relaxed will open a new era in college sports and allow players — not just schools, conferences, coaches and the N.C.A.A. itself — to look to the marketplace to capitalize on their fame for the first time. Most student-athletes are expected to earn modest sums, if anything at all. But researchers and executives believe the new system will fortify the bank accounts of future professional stars, who could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars while they are still in college, and increase financial opportunities for women, who enjoy loyal audiences as students but often have few lucrative options as athletes once they leave their campuses.

Before, and even during, Monday’s deliberations, athletes were making plans to begin to cash in starting later this week. Jordan Bohannon, a men’s basketball player at Iowa, recently announced plans for an apparel line that will debut on Thursday. On Twitter on Monday, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz posted a personal logo that was complete with a trademark symbol. And businesses from car dealerships to entertainment venues intend to extend offers to players on Thursday, sparking a new economic reality in college athletics.

The fees that athletes command will likely change as the contours of the new marketplace emerge, executives said. But some are expecting prominent players to begin by trying to charge $1,000 an hour, and sometimes far more, for their work. For many athletes, their values will be closely connected to their online presences; Paige Bueckers, the women’s basketball star at Connecticut, has more than 829,000 followers on Instagram, for instance, while Spencer Rattler, a quarterback at Oklahoma, has more than 370,000.

A board mostly filled with university chancellors and presidents must still sign off on the N.C.A.A.’s plan, which officials spent days refining after a Supreme Court ruling last week made the association more vulnerable to antitrust challenges. But college sports executives ultimately expect the group’s backing during a meeting on Wednesday.

Under the approach supported on Monday by the Division I Council, a group that includes conference commissioners and athletic directors, students nationwide will generally not face N.C.A.A. repercussions, like a loss of eligibility for athletics, for profiting off their names, images or likenesses. Especially in states without laws or executive orders on the subject, schools will be expected to set policies around matters like whether students may wear a university’s logo in an advertisement.

As in the past, universities will not be allowed to pay players salaries, and athletes will not be permitted to accept money from anyone in exchange for enrolling at a particular school.

The interim guidance that advanced on Monday, the nuances of which may very well be tweaked in the future, including on Wednesday, would apply to Division I, which has more than 170,000 student-athletes and features the richest and most famous leagues in college sports, including the Power 5: the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conferences. Officials in Divisions II and III, which together include about 750 schools and more than 320,000 players, are expected to vote on similar plans this week.

“I think it’s a recognition that we have to adjust our business practices as it relates to the student-athletes,” Richard J. Ensor, who has been the commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since 1988, said of the proposed policy. N.C.A.A. leaders, he said, were “in a position where they had to build a policy that allowed us to start reacting to the reality, but recognizing that there’s a lot to be learned over the next months and we’ll need to adjust as it goes along.”

In October, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, which is separate from the N.C.A.A. and includes about 77,000 student-athletes, voted to let players earn money for public appearances and endorsements.

Leaders of the N.C.A.A., the most influential governing body in college sports, insisted for months that they were eager to move forward with new guidelines to allow players greater economic opportunities. And while it is true that many leading figures in athletics have urged the 115-year-old association to loosen its longstanding restrictions, the college sports industry is largely acting now because it had very little choice.

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas all have laws or executive orders coming into effect on Thursday that will allow college athletes to earn money off their names, images and likenesses. More than a dozen other states have passed similar measures with later effective dates. But Congress, in a setback to the N.C.A.A., has not reached an agreement to override the state statutes and offer a national standard through a bill.

Although many administrators still hope that the federal government will eventually act, the array of state laws — often maligned by athletics officials as a “patchwork” — threatened to create an immediate imbalance in college sports. Schools in states with legal guarantees that students could potentially earn money, the reasoning went, would be better positioned to recruit prospective players, tilting the greatest future talents toward a handful of schools. The N.C.A.A.’s decision to intervene, executives hope, will stave off the worst potential disparities for at least a short time.

Still, the path to Monday’s recommendation was speckled with infighting, caution, threats and last-minute maneuvering. No recent development was more consequential than a Supreme Court ruling last week that undercut the N.C.A.A.’s approach to antitrust law and pushed the industry toward conceding more rights to athletes than top executives once anticipated.

The case, N.C.A.A. v. Alston, was narrowly focused on education-related benefits like academic awards and paid internships, but the court’s unanimous ruling stripped away some of the legal precedent that the association and its members relied upon for protection for decades. The decision unnerved college sports officials, many of them already drained by seemingly endless court battles, and deepened concerns that a set of strict N.C.A.A. rules around athletes’ use of their names, images and likenesses would invite more legal challenges and, perhaps, more resounding defeats.

But many of those officials were also alarmed by the prospect of the N.C.A.A. taking no action as the state laws loomed on Thursday. In a memo last week that appeared designed to assuage those fears, Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said executives were working “to develop interim solutions.”

On Monday, the association moved closer to delivering on those ambitions. But the N.C.A.A. also made it clear that nothing would be final until, at least, the day before the industry was going to change anyway.