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On Players and Their Likenesses

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

NCAA President Mark Emmert News Conference Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There have been a few books written in the past twenty years or so that wonder if sport is secretly a kind of religion.

I don’t buy that argument.

But I will tell you that one place where college football is undeniably very much like a religion is in moments like this—moments where some change occurs (the California bill giving players the ability to benefit from the use of their name, image, and likeness in this case) and people immediately launch into prophecies of the doom for the entire enterprise.

If there is sin in the camp, then the whole righteous endeavor will be corrupted. If the priests are proved to be unrighteous then the sacrament we hoped would save us, is now invalid. Our very souls are in jeopardy.

Now, I don’t think any of that is right. But just because it is incorrect, doesn’t mean that it can’t tell us something very important.

I often say to people that football is worth studying because it is for something. It means something to a whole lot of people, and that becomes ever so clear when the prospect of the long-snapper getting paid for an autograph session sends football twitter into prognostications on the decline of Western society.

So here is a first principle: Football is a project.

It is meant to build something. It is trying to build that “something” based off of a likeness, an image, an ideal, a norm. The damned thing about the ideal is it doesn’t really come from anywhere and no one ever really sat down and decided whether or not it was any good. We have all simply assumed it is good and worth reproducing over and over and over again.

Now, the way you can tell that no one has really sat down and figured out if the ideal is good or not is the disconnect between two principles:

1. Embracing the amateur model—sacrificing wealth for the sake of a team—is a virtuous action.

2. If you are exceptionally talented and your talent produces something of value on the free market, you should be the recipient of the profits from that.

So in this case the argument seems maddeningly clear. There were these video games that used the number and stats of current players or there were jerseys being sold or there were bilboards going up that used the images of current players—and all of that stuff, along with innumerable other things, made a crap ton of money. But the people whose names or likenesses were being used to make all the money didn’t get any of it.

That is wrong. You can’t do that.

And yet, even for a ton of free market capitalists, this threatens something central to the goodness of college football. It threatens to spoil the pleasure of watching UGA play Florida if Jake Fromm has an endorsement deal with Croakies or if Kyle Trask shot a commercial for Swamp Juice® Florida’s newest energy drink and weed killer combination.

Now, maybe they have a point. Maybe this sequence of events will come to change college football forever.

But there are two things I would like to point out that I don’t think people acknowledge enough:

  1. It is just as likely this will change college football for the better than for the worse.
  2. The NCAA—and NO ONE ELSE—is responsible for the sequence of events that led to this inflection point.

After the O’Bannon ruling the NCAA should have immediately switched to the Olympic model. Yes, Olympians are still amateurs. They are not compensated as employees of the USOC. But they do get paid through use of their name, image, and likeness. They get money from Wheaties if they get put on a Wheaties box.

The NCAA is a billion-dollar non-profit. It is becoming nigh on impossible to describe the NCAA as anything other than a institution whose purpose is to make as much money as possible off of the labor of athletes while giving them as small a share of that profit as possible.

Honest to God, I don’t know what Mark Emmert does anymore other than this.

But whatever you believe about them moral glories of amateurism, the thing that is an absolute truth of our time now is that the games have simply gotten too big. When football made no money and coaches made enough to afford a mortgage in the 50’s and a college degree cost $20, there was something admirable in supporting the flourishing of an athlete on the court and in the classroom.

That ship has sailed and it has sailed because the NCAA succeeded.

It made these weird games, played by just barely competent athletes, into a seasonal spectacle that gives to millions of people across America a sense of constancy and identity.

It took what was once a weird, student-run hazing ritual of complete physical mayhem and turned it into a thing that makes a billion dollars every year. That is more than 2 million dollars a day.

The NCAA created the conditions that made the destruction of Amateurism not only possible, but seemingly inevitable.

So will this change college football?

Yes. So did scholarships. So did rule reform to keep people from dying. So did Title IX. So did cost of living stipends. And the list goes on and on. Each time the NCAA claimed it was the end of collegiate athletics and each time the sport got bigger.

Will this fix everything that is wrong with football?

NO. I suspect the NCAA will find a way to regulate these payments in the most irrational way possible and punish violators in the most indiscriminate and cruel way possible.

Have proponents of pay for NIL thought through all the intricacies and complexities of how payments will be dispersed and how to do all that as justly as possible?

No. But, and I cannot stress this enough, the complexity of a solution is never sufficient cause to abandon the attempt at solving the problem. You don’t get to keep doing something bad just because the right thing to do is complicated and hard.

We do the right thing first and try to mitigate the consequences as best we can.

The “likeness” we are seeking to make and to glorify through college football will have to change. Better yet, maybe it will be destroyed.

This is a good thing. We should cast our idols into the fire. Because these are not just names or images or likenesses. These are real people with a whole host of desires that align and conflict in ways that are impossible to appease all at once.

But the least we can do is stop an obvious con when we see one.