After numerous state legislative actions and courtroom battles that challenged the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)’s amateurism rules, the organization has begun to take steps to allow the compensation of student athletes. On October 29, 2019, the NCAA announced that its Board of Governors voted to allow student-athletes to benefit from the use of their name, image, and likeness (“NIL”).

However, there is one caveat—any changes to the rules must be “consistent with the collegiate model.” This vague language has college athletics stakeholders skeptical about the true impact this announcement will have on student-athletes. The NCAA’s collegiate model is built upon the principle of amateurism. Amateurism is the idea that students-athletes are distinct from professionals; thus, they cannot be paid for their participation in athletics. So, if the value of student-athletes’ names, images, and likenesses is derived from their participation in athletics, how can they benefit?

A look at a recent court decision may provide some guidance as to what the future of student-athlete compensation looks like. In In Re NCAA: Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation, plaintiffs, a group of current and former players, challenged the NCAA’s prohibition of scholarship money beyond the cost of attendance. The District Court held that the NCAA’s restriction violated antitrust laws and mandated the NCAA to allow unlimited payments so long as they are “tethered to education.” Unfortunately, the court gave little guidance as to what “tethered to education” means.

There are several routes the NCAA could take. One path is to restrict payments to non-cash, education-related benefits, which the court ruled were completely permissible. These include computers, study abroad trips, etc. Another route is to make cash payments from NIL use contingent on meeting academic benchmarks, such as GPA requirements and class attendance. This path is less favorable to the NCAA, who believes cash payments deteriorate the amateurism model. However, state legislation, e.g. California’s Pay-to-Play Act, may push the NCAA in that direction.

The NCAA has given each division the authority to develop rule changes as they see fit. Only time will tell how players will be affected by the NCAA’s rule change.

Regina Tisdale

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