In 2017, former Texas A&M cross country runner Ryan Trahan quit the team and dropped out of college following a dispute between him, the university and the NCAA.
Trahan, who had a budding YouTube channel as well as a water bottle company, was given a choice: either demonetize his channel and focus solely on his career as an athlete, or create content that included promotion of his company but did not mention his athletics.
Since his departure, Trahan has done well for himself, boasting a YouTube channel with 1.97 million subscribers.
But there is always the question of what could have been if the NCAA loosened restrictions regarding athletes’ use of their own name, image and likeness.
“These restrictions they place on the athletes blows my mind,” Trahan said in a 2017 YouTube video. “I don’t understand how I’m allowed to have a job working at McDonald’s while being a student-athlete, but I can’t have a company I’m passionate about that I’ve been working on for over a year.”
Sayvon Foster, a graduate research and teaching assistant with A&M’s department of sport management, said NCAA restrictions leave college athletes at a disadvantage because other non-athletes are able to profit from their own talents and interests.
“I think with the amount of money that’s made when it comes to college athletics, if student-athletes aren’t getting paid from the university or the NCAA, they should be able to make money off their image and likeness,” Foster said. “I’m pretty sure there are students in various bands and choirs that are also cutting albums and making money from it, so if a student-athlete is popular and they want to start a YouTube channel or be in an advertisement, they should have the opportunity to do so.”
‘A Game Changer’
The situation could change moving forward, however, as new legislation is forcing the NCAA’s hand on these issues.
California governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 206, also called the Fair Pay to Play Act, into law on Sept. 11, reigniting the argument over whether college athletes should receive compensation for their name, image or likeness. The bill won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023.
Other states are in talks to push similar bills through their legislature. Florida is considering a bill that would go into effect in 2020; Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington have all discussed similar legislation.
Since its inception in 1906, the NCAA’s stance has been to ban student-athletes from generating income using their image as an athlete and to penalize those who the governing body deems guilty.
The NCAA hasn’t taken a major stance on the signing of California’s law, other than a statement released on Sept. 30.
“We will consider next steps in California while our members move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education,” the NCAA said in the statement.
In 2013, former A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel found himself in trouble with the NCAA after he allegedly accepted payment for signing autographs in January of that year. Manziel served a half-game suspension in the Aggies’ season opener against Rice, though there was no evidence to corroborate the claims, according to the university.
After that, Manziel became the poster child for the movement and even graced the cover of TIME Magazine’s Sept. 16, 2013 edition, which featured a story titled “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes.”
In an early 2018 tweet, Manziel shared a picture of the TIME cover with a caption that called the NCAA a joke for not allowing college athletes to be paid.
IT’S TIME! The NCAA is a joke.. pic.twitter.com/TO8VMv2LBF
— Johnny Manziel (@JManziel2) March 7, 2018
A&M head football coach Jimbo Fisher said California’s law will be a turning point for college athletics.
“It’s really going to change how things are done,” Fisher said in a press conference on Sept. 30. “I’m anxious to see the next step the NCAA takes. They’re going to have to make the accountable adjustments to what goes on. It’s definitely a game changer.”
Though there is potential for an increase in the number of student-athletes going to California, Foster said he doesn’t think the SEC will see much effect.
“It falls back on the A&M brand and the Jimbo brand,” Foster said. “A&M has a lengthy enough contract with Jimbo to have a true culture shift when it comes to football. Just looking at all the sports, A&M has probably one of the best sport traditions in the country.”
It is that deep tradition in the states introducing these laws that is a driving factor behind the push for change, Foster said.
“When you have a sport history as deep as California and a sport culture that’s so powerful, you see legislation start to pour through,” Foster said. “It’s like, ‘We’re producing a lot of student-athletes that eventually go to college and go pro. We need to find a way to keep them here.’”
Football is king in Texas, and championships are the top priority for many major programs, Foster said. Competitive teams have an even greater incentive to follow the rules, as individual athletes and schools that violate the NCAA’s name, image and likeness regulations are ineligible to compete in bowl games and championships.
“With the sports history in Texas, they emphasize championships,” Foster said. “Other states are fine with having top teams, top-tier talent and not worrying about championships, but in Texas, championships are pretty much everything.”
Last month, former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said on ESPN’s First Take that the implementation of the California law would ruin college athletics by turning it into a money-making venture, thus eliminating the passion.
“We’re changing it from ‘us’ — which [is what] makes college football and college sports special — to then it’s just about ‘me,’” Tebow said. “I know we live in a selfish culture where it’s all about us, but we’re just adding and piling it on to where it changes what’s special about college football.”
This mindset already exists outside of sports, however. While Tebow fears student-athletes will choose schools based on how much money they could make, Foster said non-athletes are already choosing schools for a similar reason.
“We have students going to universities because they have the top program, not so much that they have the dedication and commitment to the university,” Foster said. “At A&M, we have the top sport management program; students can say, ‘I want to go to A&M because they have the top program. I don’t care about being an Aggie.’”
NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a Q&A with the Indianapolis Star on Oct. 3 that the California bill puts the NCAA in jeopardy if California schools move forward and create their own conferences to compete in.
“The complete elimination of rules is not acceptable,” Emmert said. “You simply can’t have a successful athletic association when we don’t have any rules in place, and you can’t control the behavior of third party systems.”
Realities of College Athletics
A common misconception about college athletes is that they are in stable financial situations. The reality is that scholarships, especially full rides, are few and far between.
According to USA Today, less than two percent of high school athletes are offered scholarships for college, with only one percent of those receiving full rides.
“It’s being framed that student-athletes are making tremendous amounts of money — millions upon millions of dollars — where right now, the way it’s structured is this [bill] is just [allowing] a student-athlete [to] have a YouTube channel or be part of an advertisement,” Foster said. “It seems small, but that’s a huge difference than making NBA-level contract money or college football coach contract money.”
In fact, during the 2017-18 season, 38 NCAA DI football programs generated over $100 million in total revenue each, according to USA Today. Meanwhile, some student-athletes struggle to buy groceries and pay their bills without scholarships or other ways to supplement their income. Foster said during his time as an athletic department intern at Florida A&M, he spoke with some athletes who struggled to make ends meet.
“They would use their stipend or their money card just to put groceries in their house, or they would use the cash-back feature to run and go pay a bill,” Foster said. “You shouldn’t struggle day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month for something as simple as that.”
This bill will benefit not only the student-athletes playing high revenue-generating sports, but student-athletes across all sports, even if they’re not receiving endorsements from name brands, Foster said.
“Let’s say in the one part of Texas where football isn’t king, wrestling is king,” Foster said. “If A&M had varsity wrestling, maybe businesses out in that area would want to connect with and promote our wrestling squad and use [a student-athlete] in different advertisements, even if it’s making a poster and putting him on the poster.”
Foster said California’s bill, and others that may follow, come down to one thing — giving student-athletes the opportunity to follow their passions and monetize their talents.
“The world is big now; the world is huge,” Foster said. “You scroll through YouTube, you see people making money off of channels about any and everything. You have no idea what these student-athletes could do.
“I think a lot of people need to open their eyes and broaden their perspective on what this could be and not think that it’s shady, back-alley deals, or student-athletes are working with these unsavory individuals,” Foster said. “I think this could actually be far more pure than what people think.”
For Trahan, California’s bill comes two years too late, as the NCAA shut the door on his athletic career.
“It’s like crushing dreams before they can come to fruition,” Trahan said in his video. “Human beings deserve the right to pursue those things.”