Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
At almost literally the eleventh hour, the NCAA removed barriers to college athletes receiving compensation for their name, image and likeness. (The press release was published at 4:20 pm on June 30; LOL.) Those barriers were as nonsensical as they were longstanding, and hours before they would have become futile anyway on July 1 thanks to the more than a dozen states that took matters into their own legislatures and governors’ offices while the NCAA dawdled, they were gone. Finally.
It’s a huge shift in the college sports landscape, one that could make watching them feel less baldly exploitative. But allowing athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses — and very explicitly NOT off their athletic performance — is still less than the bare minimum. It only allows college athletes to move through the world the exact same way the rest of us do, free to sell our handiwork on Etsy or whatever. The shift only looks liberating because before it was so incredibly unfair: athletes would be penalized for, say, monetizing their YouTube channel or…working anywhere, period. The part that’s getting overlooked is that it still is.
The NCAA official mandate explains that, “Compensation for athletic participation or achievement [is prohibited]. Athletic performance may enhance a student-athlete’s NIL value, but athletic performance may not be the ‘consideration’ for NIL compensation.” For those already acquainted with the goofy, circular logic of the NCAA this aspect of the rule change might make sense, but it’s truly wild to read with a mote of perspective. College athletes, whose skill is sports (duh), still can’t make money off of…sports. The idea is that this rule will maintain the purity of college sports, parity, recruiting and so on and so forth.
There are endless ways to rationalize a system that couldn’t be less coherent. The bottom line, for now, is that if athletes want to make money while playing college sports, they have to do something else besides play college sports.
truly no one interested in saying the quiet part out loud, as though that isn’t a journalist’s job pic.twitter.com/ejNy5Q3IoO
— Natalie Weiner (@natalieweiner) July 1, 2021
Whether that thing is signing autographs or recording Cameos or appearing at fans’ birthday parties, athletes will have to expand their workload beyond their nearly full-time jobs with their schools’ athletic departments — and the schoolwork they’re expected to complete on top of that. Athletes who might have previously received thousands of dollars under the table from boosters may now be compelled to film advertisements for their car dealerships or restaurants to receive the same money, money that instead of being private is now being assiduously tracked by every news outlet touting “athletes cashing in” for clicks. Never mind that instead of simply collecting a paycheck from the place they work, college athletes will need to hire a whole team — accountant, lawyer, agent — to make sure they’re neither being taken advantage of nor breaking any laws.
That is not fairness, and we can’t allow the NCAA or its member schools to paint it that way.
This shift is being painted by those within college athletics as a step into the Wild West, inviting chaos that — all of a sudden — they agree is completely earned and justified! They’re just worried about working out the details — just to “protect the athletes,” you understand? It’s true that per usual the NCAA is approaching this change in as harebrained a way as possible, abdicating all responsibility to its member institutions (where have we heard that one before) while pleading in vain with the federal government to protect their best interests (amateurism). They’ve certainly made the lives of those working in college athletics more difficult for the foreseeable future, but that isn’t really the biggest danger from this NIL rule change.
The danger is that the journalists, the college athletes, and all the activists, professors and lawmakers who have fought for their rights accept this as the end of the road. We can’t, and they can’t. NIL will cost schools literally nothing (although I’m sure we’ll hear plenty to the contrary), will make no difference in their ability to profit off college athletes hand over foot. This is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t fair; fair is when players get paid for their work. Period.