Last week the NCAA took the first step toward allowing the amateur athletes who drive the multibillion-dollar industry of college sports to finally cash in on their name, image and likeness.
This change has been long overdue. Thousands upon thousands of college athletes going back generations have been badly exploited under the current system.
One of them was Kueth Duany, a former teammate of mine at Syracuse University. Kueth, who was born in Sudan and became a naturalized citizen while he was at Syracuse, was the captain of the 2003 national championship team led by the great Carmelo Anthony (who, incidentally, should be playing for an NBA team right now and it’s disrespectful that he isn’t). His father was involved in trying to bring peace to his homeland at the time and could not afford to fly to the US to watch a game. His mother, who was living in Indiana and holding down two or three jobs, only saw him play once in four years: an away game at Wisconsin when her local community paid for her to attend.
“It would have changed my life,” Kueth said on my ESPN Syracuse radio show. “My father never watched me play at Syracuse. He only came to the national championship game in 2003. I would’ve loved to be able to say, ‘Dad, I’mma put you on a flight. I know you are doing the liberation stuff in Africa, but now you can watch what your son is doing and be a part of it.’”
Stories like Kueth’s are important to remember when you consider the life-changing impact the new rules will have on future college athletes. But that’s only part of it. The NCAA overhaul will finally permit these students to work with professional agents who have their own interests at heart. The value of that is something Kueth learned the hard way.
“The year we won the championship, I was called into the media department in Syracuse and I was asked to sign some documents,” he told me. “It was the NCAA, who wanted to use my likeness for the cover of a video game. I remember being told, ‘Kueth, you may get a chance to get drafted and this could help you with some notoriety.’ I’m just 21 years old and they dangled the dream of playing professional basketball in front of me. So I signed away, not understanding the value of what I was actually signing away. I was the only senior on the championship team and they wanted to promote the team.
“Now for the last 12 years, I’ve been running a business. And when you go into a business meeting, or a negotiation, if you don’t have legal representation, lawyers, counsel, on any deal you’re working on, you’re going to get fleeced. When I was in school, I got good grades, studied economics, was a bright guy, but a college student is not ready to do anything with what the NCAA is putting in front of you. That’s why guys need representation, and the schools just don’t offer that. There was no advice that the likeness could be worth this, the video game could be worth this. You have a chance to make something from it. You could negotiate a better deal. With business, you have to have representation on both sides of the table. What type of sense would it make for only one side to be represented?”
Some politicians were so eager to object to the NCAA’s new rules they went against their standard talking points.
Utah senator Mitt Romney was quick to criticize the change in an appearance on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, saying: “What you can’t have is a couple athletes driving around in Ferraris while everybody else is basically having a hard time making ends meet.”
North Carolina senator Richard Burr also made his objections known with a tweet: “If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income. I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to ‘cash in’ to income taxes.”
Isn’t it interesting the same people whose entire platforms center around free-market capitalism, and who vehemently stand against “punishing the wealthy for being wealthy”, all of a sudden want to adopt a philosophy of socialism when it comes to players receiving fair compensation – and don’t have any issues with coaches receiving different amounts of pay or benefits?
Burr is a third-term senator who was first elected to congress in 1994, so one would think he was aware of how things work. But let me break it down for him. A scholarship would only be deemed as taxable income if the college athlete were an actual employee. Now anyone who has even remotely been following the NCAA would be fully aware that they are hell-bent on not recognizing student-athletes as employees, because then they would have to pay them as employees. And even in their statement regarding images and likeness, they make clear that this has to fall under the NCAA model, and their model is very far from an employer-employee relationship.
It’s one thing for college athletes to not have the support of politicians in this fight, but even the coaches have been loath to support it. Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney went as far as to say he would quit the sport if athletes ever got paid. The same Dabo Swinney that just signed a 10-year, $92m contract extension. It’s perfectly fine for him to generate millions on the backs of unpaid students, but even the thought of his players taking a piece of the pie would repulse him to the point of walking away? (This shouldn’t surprise me after Swinney’s statement that Colin Kaepernick and other players who had the audacity to a knee in protest of police violence and racism should leave the country, but I digress.)
And some of the criticism has come even closer to home.
Both Kueth and myself played under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse – and both of us were disappointed by our Hall of Fame coach’s reaction to the rule change after an exhibition win over Carleton last week.
“I’ve always said this was a good idea, but it’s a bad idea if it gets to the point of people getting $20k here, $15k there, or if they go [to a certain school] they’re gonna get a $40k commercial, because that’s what’s going to happen,” Boeheim said. “If it just went normal and everything went normal, it would probably be OK, but it ain’t going be normal. It won’t be that way. If players can have an agent, at a big name school, a big basketball school, I think an agent can get a player a $100k commercial. Is that where we want to go?”
He added: “It still gets down to there’s 4,000 players and 3,950 of them are happy to have a scholarship. They’re worried about 50 people making money.”
As Kueth Duany said to me on my show: “What’s wrong with guys making money, coach?”
With all due respect, I have to disagree with his entire assessment. For decades every coach at every major program has had absolutely no restrictions with their endorsements. They can sign deals worth upwards of a million dollars without anyone blinking an eye. Is the real issue that those deals will now be going to players and most likely no longer to coaches? I’m no agent but I’d imagine any business entity would much rather sign an endorsement deal with the team’s exciting, camera-friendly young player than the legendarily accomplished but … less-than-camera-friendly, less-than-young coach.
The fact is, players like Kueth will no longer have to worry about their parents not being able to see them play, or not having enough money to go home during Christmas like regular students, or not having proper representation when negotiating a deal so that they’re not taken advantage of. I understand why coaches would want all the endorsements for themselves. I understand why politicians would want to get their slice of the action through taxes. I understand why the NCAA wants to make sure they get their cut on this deal. After all, their entire “NCAA model” has always been: You make all the money, and we take everything you earn and protect you from all the bad people out there.
Everyone is not going to get the big endorsement deals coach Boeheim described, but there could be team signings where the entire team can participate in the financial benefits of their likeness images and celebrity. Those charity events all teams are forced to go to where the school’s or coach’s charity receives all the money? Now an agent can set up a team signing or dinner or appearance and the entire team could be rewarded financially. There are an abundance of ways for all players to profit off of their likeness and image, so it wouldn’t be just be the 50 guys at the top.
For college athletes of every sport and gender, this new rule will, as Kueth Duany said, change their lives.