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NIL vs. NCAA; WNBA "Honors" Griner

Over the last 10 months, we’ve witnessed a seismic change in college sports.

Things that used to be done “under the table” are now being done over the table, out in the open. Things that used to be illegal, get coaches fired and schools put on probation are now permissible.

The combination of NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) payments and the transfer portal has triggered a new era of unregulated player compensation and unprecedented player movement that has raised alarm bells throughout the country.

Some quick background.

On July 1 of last year, the NCAA authorized compensation to athletes for NIL. This ostensibly allowed "third parties"—i.e. sponsors, companies and local businesses—to pay players for things like autograph signings, appearances, memorabilia, endorsements, and social media promotions.

The NCAA's approval came after several years of unsuccessful efforts—marked by a string of legal losses for anti-trust violations and a 9-0 rebuke by the Supreme Court—to preserve its antiquated view of "amateurism" and prevent payments to athletes other than scholarships and "cost of attendance."

But when over 20 states passed their own laws authorizing NIL, the NCAA had to grudgingly acquiesce. Unfortunately, the organization provided no rules or regulations for schools to follow, other than saying they should “avoid pay for play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school.”

Well, quicker than you could say "NCAA violations", schools started skirting the rules. Over the last 10 months, we've seen five, six and seven figure payments made to induce players to transfer, to keep players from transferring and to attract top high school recruits.

The money has come from the new power brokers—marketing agencies, high-roller "boosters" and "collectives" of donors and businesses formed to help their school acquire talent.

For example, Miami booster John Ruiz is paying every Hurricane football player $500 a month to promote his LifeWallet products and openly advertised that his business had made an $800,000 NIL deal for a basketball transfer.

The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel reviewed an $8 million contract used to induce a five-star prospect to sign with a specific school (believed to be quarterback Nico Iamaleava and Tennessee).

With president Mark Emmert's forthcoming departure and the organization’s increasing irrelevance, the NCAA has been reluctant to act. But a number of athletic directors and conference commissioners, led by Ohio State's Gene Smith, Colorado's Rick George and the Big East’s Val Ackerman, have stepped in and are pushing the NCAA to crack down on NIL abuses.

Their proposed guidance would clarify existing NCAA bylaws that prohibit booster involvement in recruiting. A booster, or a collective run by a donor, would not be able "to communicate with a student-athlete…to encourage them to remain enrolled or attend an institution.”

Any booster engagement with prospects about recruiting would be considered a rules violation and put the booster’s school at risk of sanctions.

Problem is, any attempt to limit or restrain athletes from making deals will face immediate legal challenges.

As one leading NIL agent said over the weekend, “the moment they try to interfere with one of my clients’ deals, the next day is the moment they get hit with an antitrust lawsuit.”

Bottom line...good luck, NCAA.

One Man’s Take: I’ve long been a proponent of athletes getting a piece of the billions they generate for conferences, schools, commissioners, athletic directors and coaches. Compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness seemed like a decent way to accomplish that. But the absence of national rules or federal legislation left the door open to widespread abuse. Now, 10 months later, the powers that be have decided they want to retroactively institute controls.

Given the NCAA’s pathetic enforcement history and lack of success in the courtroom, I’d be surprised if anything substantive can be done.

The NIL horse is already out of the barn, and it’s going to be very difficult to rein it back in.

Empty “Honor” for Griner: So the WNBA is going to honor Brittney Griner—who's being "wrongfully detained" in Russia for carrying vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage—with a floor decal showing her initials BG and her number.

Wow! How impressive.

I have a better suggestion: How about honoring Griner by working with the State Department to negotiate her release? And then, how about paying her a legitimate salary so she doesn't have to play in Russia anymore to supplement her income?

This whole episode is a black mark on the WNBA's still-insufficient pay scale. The league's maximum salary is about $230,000. And next year, players who return late from overseas competition, where they can earn up to $1.5 million, will be fined.

It gets worse. Starting in 2024, they can be suspended for an entire season if they're late arriving for the WNBA opener.

What makes this so galling is that the league's daddy, the NBA, is awash in cash, raking in about $10 billion per year. Wouldn’t it make sense to share a small fraction of that bounty to help compensate WNBA players adequately, so they don't have to go overseas to earn a living?

Just askin’.

ABL in WNBA Documentary? This Saturday at 4:00 Pacific, the NBA network will air a documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of the WNBA. The producers have pledged to recognize the ABL (American Basketball League), for its pioneering role in advancing the cause of professional women’s basketball in the U.S.

As one of the ABL’s founders and its CEO, I was interviewed for the program, along with a few of our players, but my instincts tell me that the ABL will probably end up on the cutting room floor. We’ll see…


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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