When the men's basketball team at Loyola University in Chicago defied the odds last year by advancing to the Final Four for the first time in 50 years, the Ramblers became a national sensation.
“The school did well. In downtown Chicago, you couldn’t walk around without seeing their likenesses somewhere,” said Chris Welch, a former major college athlete who played baseball at Northwestern.
Welch said he appreciated all the attention the Ramblers were getting, but something about it bothered him.
“The school didn't profit at all. The next year the coach got a multi-year contract and he’s now a millionaire,” Welch explained. “Congratulations to coach (Porter) Moser, I think he did a fantastic job, but I do think that students should be able to profit off of their own names, likenesses and images.”
Loyola didn't get a specific financial boost for advancing to the Final Four, but it earned about $8.2 million for schools in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Welch is an Illinois state representative, a Democrat whose district covers much of Chicago. So when California's governor signed a bill into law last week that will allow student athletes starting in 2023 to cash in on their name through endorsements, like those you see with professional athletes with sports apparel, shoe companies, cars and just about anything else, Welch proposed a bill to allow Illinois to do the same.
School administrators in Illinois are wondering what impact the law allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness might have, especially now that Illinois could become the second state to take that same path.
Advocates say enabling student athletes the chance to earn some type of compensation is long overdue, while critics fear this could open the flood gates and lead the way to colleges paying athletes directly.
Not only does Welch consider it an issue of fairness, he thinks college sports programs in his state could get left behind.
“The reality is California is a Pac-12 state, Illinois is a Big Ten state and we compete for top talent,” Welch said. “With that bill now being law in California, I think at a minimum we need to be on par and our coaches need to have the ability to recruit on the same level as California universities.”
Along that line of thinking, schools in Illinois such as Illinois State University could get a leg up among its competitors. But ISU athletics director Larry Lyons says the issue would present a quandary for the university because the NCAA has its own rules, which say student-athlete compensation is a no-no.
“It would be, I think, in the best interests of college athletics that we are all working on the same page, following the same rules,” Lyons said. “If we have rules that are different in different states, I think that causes more problems than it solves.”
Lyons said it's best to wait and see how this all gets sorted out. That won't likely be on a basketball court or tennis court, but in civil court.
Some critics of the law hope that's where it ends up.
“The first weakness is that it’s unconstitutional,” declared Bradley University president and sports lawyer Gary Roberts.
Roberts noted a 1993 appeals court ruling upholding UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian's suspension for recruiting violations established that only Congress can regulate interstate commerce, which California is trying to do with this new law.
He added that same court, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, would likely be the same court to consider the legality of California’s new law if there’s a legal challenge.
Roberts said he believes the biggest schools with the biggest fan bases would be able to game the system. He envisions college athletic departments setting up endorsement pools, funded by donors, that would essentially pay student athletes for endorsements that could be pre-arranged for recruits.
Roberts said it's hard enough for so-called mid-majors like Bradley to compete athletically. He said making it a world of what he calls "unbridled commercialism" would make it nearly impossible.
“The experience you can get at Bradley, for many, is superior to what you can get at LSU or the University of Illinois,” Roberts said. “That won’t be true anymore because Bradley is going to say, ‘We can give you a great education,’ but LSU is going to say ‘We can give $500,000.’”
Roberts believes the law would mean the end of the NCAA and major college sports as we know them.
Liz Sattler teaches sports law at ISU. She suggested that's not such a bad thing.
“If enough states and enough major conferences see that, they could say, ‘We could start our own conference or we could start our own institution.’” Sattler said. “I think that’s a real threat to the NCAA is they do choose to fight this.”
Sattler said there's already a double standard, between student athletes and any other student who wants to make a few bucks off the skills they have harnessed in college.
“A music major who has a skill in music can go and generate revenue off their skill. No on is keeping them from doing that,” she explained. “I think the question for a long time has been why aren’t college athletes allowed to do the same thing.”
The new California law would enable student athletes to host sports camps or tutor young athletes and get paid for it.
“It may provide the gymnast at ISU who has a following of fans here in Bloomington-Normal the ability to create her own camp in the summer and use her likeness to advertise that camp and generate some revenue,” Sattler said.
Critics fear allowing students to cash in on endorsements will lay the legal and political foundation for student athletes to be compensated for playing sports.
State Rep. Welch said that's a separate issue from what he's advocating, but ISU's Larry Lyons and Bradley's Gary Roberts said it appears the college landscape is slowing creeping toward some form of athlete compensation. Will it ever get there?
ISU's Liz Sattler said it could take years, maybe decades, maybe never, but she suggests it's time to stop pretending the billion-dollar industry of college athletics isn't big business.
“They realize that college sports is professional in so many ways, in the way coaches are paid, in the way facilities are built and they way television contracts are generated,” Sattler said. “Really the only piece that isn’t of hasn’t been is the athletes themselves, the centerpiece.”
Bradley’s Gary Roberts acknowledged student sports generate money for their schools, but he said individual athletes, those college stars you see on television, are in a distinct minority.
“We overlook the fact that’s about 2% of the kids playing college sports under the NCAA banner, so the so-called exploitation that people talk about is really limited to a tiny number of … largely minority kids who play football and basketball at these major programs,” Roberts said.
The NCAA has long fought any compensation for its athletes. The association has maintained the free scholarship many of them receive should be compensation enough.
Finding anyone in the sports establishment to take on this political football or question the NCAA has proven to be a challenge. Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin declined to be interviewed for the story. Illinois State University's representative on the NCAA's Board of Directors, marketing professor Jeri Beggs, also did not wish to comment.
The NCAA does have a working group that's examining how to handle these issues of name, image and likeness. California's new law may have forced the NCAA to address the issue sooner.
The 19-member working group is expected to present its findings by the end of the month. Several other states are also considering letting college athletes to cash in on endorsements.
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