Editorials

What will happen if NC lets college athletes earn money off their names? (Hint: It’s not doomsday)

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) looks for receiver Toe Groves on the Tar Heels’ final drive of the game, picking up seven yards and a first down on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Howell was 15-27 for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ 21-20 loss to Clemson.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) looks for receiver Toe Groves on the Tar Heels’ final drive of the game, picking up seven yards and a first down on Saturday, September 28, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Howell was 15-27 for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ 21-20 loss to Clemson. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina lawmakers should follow California’s lead and pass a law that allows college athletes to receive money for the use of their names, images and likenesses. It would correct an injustice that has cost elite athletes the dollars they deserve for their talents, and it won’t bring doomsday for college sports — despite what NCAA and college officials say.

Will such a law — if passed by several states or Congress — bring fundamental changes in college sports? Probably. Will it result in college athletes getting paid by schools? No. California’s law, signed Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, merely says college athletes can get a piece of the revenue from jersey sales or video game likenesses or even a local car ad that has their name in it. In most states you can get sued for making money off someone’s likeness, but the NCAA has been doing so for decades under the guise of keeping their athletes “amateurs.”

That will no longer happen in California, and lawmakers in at least 10 other states including Florida are quickly crafting or considering similar legislation. The NCAA is readying to fight the law in court, but its case is not strong. Should enough states pass NIL bills, the NCAA will have to bow to the reality that the college sports landscape has profoundly changed.

What would change look like in North Carolina? It would be good for larger and wealthier schools that have more deep-pocketed boosters willing to “pay” an elite athlete for his or her likeness. In other words, it would be much the same as the landscape now — the biggest programs with the biggest boosters funding the nicest facilities will continue to separate themselves from mid-tier and smaller schools.

As for the athletes? If pro sports is any indication, about 10% of the athletes will earn 90% of the individual licensing, sports economist Andy Schwarz tells the editorial board. Schwarz says there also will be a strong group licensing component — think trading cards and video games — where money is earned by all athletes in revenue producing sports.

At least some of that money has to this point gone straight to conferences, athletic departments and lush coaching contracts, so you can begin to understand why those same college officials are frowning at change. Some, including NCAA president Mark Emmert, have suggested doomsday is nigh for college sports, just as they did when Title IX was supposedly was going to bleed athletic departments to death by demanding equal opportunities to women.

But such warnings ignore a simple reality: The NCAA wants to stay in business, and colleges benefit from the NCAA’s intercollegiate sports infrastructure. Should the courts side with athletes on NIL laws, the NCAA will adjust by placing a regulatory structure around the new revenue. Schwarz speculates that could come with a cap on individual NIL earnings or with regulations that restrict boosters from using NIL contracts to simply pay athletes to come to their schools. At some point, the NCAA also will have to grapple with letting agents or advisors help athletes handle these contracts.

The NCAA is facing new, external challenges, as well. Schwarz is a co-founder of the fledgling Historical Basketball League, which will pay college-age athletes and include teams in Charlotte and Raleigh. But the NCAA and college sports will likely survive, except now with more athletes getting some of the money they deserve. North Carolina lawmakers should work toward that future. Doomsday isn’t coming. Fairness is.

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