You may not have heard of Wright’s Barbecue or Dalton Wagner, but both will be working to change that – without the threat of being penalized – thanks to the NCAA’s new “name, image and likeness” rules, or NIL.
Wagner along with other Arkansas Razorbacks offensive linemen are now being sponsored by Wright’s, which has locations in Bentonville and Johnson. Wright’s announced its sponsorship on Twitter July 6, calling the linemen the “Official Protectors of the Pit.” Several quickly flexed their marketing muscles. Wagner tweeted, “No one knows quality BBQ like an OLineman!”
Other athletes are being sponsored by Wright’s, including quarterback K.J. Jefferson and numerous women’s basketball players. Terms and conditions haven’t been released, but it’s safe to say the athletes will be paid more than they would have been paid in the past, which was zero.
This is happening because the NCAA on June 30 ended its ban on athletes profiting from their names, images and likenesses. It did this because it had to. Laws allowing the same were going into effect in 25 states including Arkansas, and you can’t have athletes being paid only at some universities. Arkansas lawmakers had passed an NIL law earlier this year. University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek, football coach Sam Pittman, and basketball coach Eric Musselman testified before legislators in support of the bill.
The NCAA’s decision came a little more than a week after the Supreme Court ruled student athletes should be able to receive additional education-related benefits above their scholarships, though it allowed the NCAA to continue prohibiting them from being directly paid salaries by the universities. In his 9-0 majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch declared the NCAA engages in “admitted horizontal price fixing” while exercising “monopoly control.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh attacked the NCAA’s entire model, writing that it “would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America” because “enormous sums of money flow to seemingly everyone except the student athletes.”
True, college athletes do receive something quite valuable: the opportunity for a free education. That’s worth tens of thousands of dollars per year and, research has shown, potentially hundreds of thousands in higher salaries over a lifetime.
But as Kavanaugh argued, the NCAA doesn’t work like America usually works and is supposed to work. In this country, highly skilled individuals usually are paid somewhat commensurately with their value in the marketplace, particularly when they are famous. An exception is when big shots collude against them, which is illegal and which the NCAA openly does. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that through scholarships, college football and basketball players seen on network television receive about 7 percent of the revenues they generate, compared to 50 percent by the pros. A starting college quarterback, if the same labor rules applied as in the NFL, could earn $2.4 million, the study said. If that seems absurd, consider what Trevor Lawrence recently brought to Clemson and what Tim Tebow earlier brought to the University of Florida.
The NIL solution is a good one – for now – because it enables athletes to be paid without the NCAA having to get too involved. It makes it easier for universities to comply with Title IX, which requires equal treatment of male and female athletes, because the athletes will be paid by private entities. It rewards athletes who are skilled at marketing themselves regardless of their gender, their sport or the school they represent, so it won’t be just the big names at the big programs who benefit.
Paying athletes based on their marketing skills is not exactly the same as rewarding them for their excellence on the field. But that’s the world we live in, and the NCAA no longer can pretend it operates in a different one.
I guess college sports’ amateurism had its charms, but it hasn’t been fair to athletes, it opened the door to under-the-table payments by boosters, and it put players and coaches in the position of breaking the rules in order to do what everyone else can do openly.
College sports will never be the same. Presumably, quarterbacks next season will mention their sponsors before describing the game-winning drive. “First of all, I’d like to thank God, my teammates and XYZ Barbecue. No one knows quality barbecue like XYZ. On that last play …”
This is America. I’m fine with that.