“Working Through It” is Another Way for the NCAA and Marist to Put Off the Pay-for-Play Implications

California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a piece of legislation into law on LeBron James’ HBO television show, “The Shop.” Well, no, he didn’t really — the “bill” was obviously fake, calling HBO’s prop department into question. But he did sign the California bill that would allow collegiate athletes to profit off of their name and likeness. Sounds good, yes? 

This led to a more recent announcement that the NCAA would be exploring a way for college athletes to profit off of their fame. Again, sounds good. There was, however, and of course, an “elephant-sized” caveat, as put by the New York Times: “Any policy changes must maintain clear distinctions between amateur athletes and professional ones.” 

There are more caveats, too, because once again, of course there are. The NCAA’s changes must take place “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” Concretely-ish, because this is the NCAA after all, it said that the new rules would remain “consistent with the values of college sports and higher education and not turn student-athletes into employees of institutions.” Naturally, critics responded with scoffs of varying degrees. “It’s a step, but it’s not a very big step,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas told the New York Post. “I don’t think the Board of Governors basically said to do anything but consider it and do it in line with the collegiate model, which is a made-up term. I don’t think it’s going anywhere.” 

Many NCAA officials, including Marist athletic director Tim Murray, feel as though this change betrays the “unique system” of college athletics. When asked about the NCAA as it currently stands, he said, “It has its downfalls and negatives, for sure… but overall, I think it has a very, very positive impact on a lot of different students and student-athletes.” 

But remove “all kinds of students” from the equation – stellar intramural careers are irrelevant to these modifications. This ruling looks to directly impact players at a variety of levels, whether they are swimmers or basketball players. Murray, though, worries about the swimmers as well as other athletes like them. Specifically, he’s “afraid” of Olympic athletes losing “the opportunities that they have currently.” 

What about Katelyn Ohashi, then?  Her routine from earlier this year was one of those rare gymnastics routines to go viral, and it catapulted her name into conversations including the likes of Simone Biles and Shawn Johnson. She was heralded as one of the more entertaining figures in the sport and quickly became one of the most famous college gymnasts ever. 

This will come as a shock: she never saw a dime. She likely won’t see many (or any) dimes, at least not immediately, and especially not from the NCAA directly. In a New York Times Video Op-Ed, Ohashi said that she was “handcuffed by the NCAA rules that prevented [her] from driving any benefit from [her] own name and likeness, regardless of the fact that after my final meet, I had no pro league to join.” 

Jon Kanda has been scouted multiple times. The athletic department isn’t shy about advertising this. He, like past Marist footballers Jason Myers, Terrence Fede, and Juston Christian, has the opportunity to potentially join a post-college league. There, he could make money not just off of his name and likeness, but also off a salary. Even the smallest of NFL deals are astronomical. Ohashi cannot do that. Nowhere in the world is there a quietly lucrative league paying gymnasts tens of millions per year for their talents. Only the most prolific get their due. 

That’s also fine. That’s how it has always been, and we’ve always known that football, basketball, and baseball players will get better paydays (should they be talented enough to do so). We should also acknowledge the fact that swimmers, divers, gymnasts, and volleyball players chose to play those sports. They probably did so knowing perfectly well that a professional career wasn’t on the horizon. But does that mean they don’t deserve the compensation that might eventually be guaranteed for a football or basketball player? Especially when they play a part in bringing in millions in revenue for the college?

“It’s not a bad system, to be honest with you,” Murray said of the current NCAA-model. “But it’s hard to justify when you have the money that you have now in the sport.” He recalled how 122 FBS head coaches make over one or two million dollars a year. “It’s crazy… and they’re football coaches.”

Yet even when he was jabbing the system one second, he found a way to support it the next. Instead of piggybacking off of this “hard to justify” point — perhaps suggesting a better way for athletes to achieve even minimal compensation, or better places for those millions to be used — he mentioned that athletes are already allotted a number of phenomenal resources. He noted that teams employ nutritionists (though not at Marist), mental health counselors (not specifically in athletics, but through the school), and psychologists (not at Marist either). 

For all of the resources that colleges say they promise their athletes, they lack in other, more crucial areas. There are too many specific problems to touch on when it comes to the NCAA as a whole. The fact that they’ve made deals with professional leagues that force athletes to practice “amateurism” when they’re most certainly ready for pro ball, for one. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman put it bluntly, citing the NCAA’s “ lie of telling athletes that a degree will provide future financial security when they are often shepherded into the easiest, least useful classes so they can retain their eligibility.”  

The law that California has passed – and to a lesser, less guaranteed extent, the NCAA’s possible rule – looks to combat those problems. It’s designed, at least in concept, to give athletes a bit of financial security while they explore collegiate athletic careers. If all goes to plan, Murray and Associate Athletic Director Elizabeth Donohue – who oversees the department’s compliance matters – could see it benefitting everyone. With caveats. Of course.

“Some kids will say yes,” Donohue said. Murray circled back to his hope that “we can figure it out where it can be equitable, we can still have controls in terms of compliance, and we can still support our Olympic sport athletes.” We wouldn’t want them to lose the opportunities they currently have, after all. 

But what opportunities are we talking about here? Marist’s financial statements lump the revenue from athletics, activities, and the Cloud Computing and Analytics Center together under the “Other” section. It’s clear, however, athletics at least contribute to that staggering $4,412,399 in income. The football team received a $2 million endowment in 2016, one that promised to “create a sustainable source of support for the Marist football program while providing student-athletes with opportunities to excel academically and athletically.” That’s fancy wording for “priority registration” and “unlimited meal swipes.”

None of these numbers break any news. At any Division I school, the top-level sports bringing in millions for the school will, in turn, have millions spent on them. Additionally, they’ll probably never appear in the budget report unless you actually look for it. But where is the endowment for swimming and diving, or water polo, or, hell, softball? Why isn’t equal revenue put toward supporting successful club teams and their athletes (men’s volleyball, women’s rugby, e-sports) so that they can join the proper ranks? Well, because the top programs are given the special (and financial) treatment regardless of their success. There are receipts to prove it: the Marist football team hasn’t seen a record better than 5-6 since 2013. Here’s $2 million, though. Go nuts.

Things are incredibly up in the air, and they’ll likely remain that way. Murray and Donohue harped on that point the most – “I think it’s so open-ended,” Donohue said. “There is really so much that needs to be outlined… it’s hard to say.” Murray was even murkier. “Depends on what they come up with,” he said. Instead of “yes, I support this” or “no, I don’t,” Murray said, “I would say it this way… I think the NCAA, a couple years ago, recognized that they had to address the issue. And we’re starting to move in that direction.” On California, he said, “I don’t necessarily support what California did… they really jumped the gun a little bit. So instead of allowing the NCAA to work through this amateurism and likeness issue within their process, they jumped the gun.”

It doesn’t matter if California “jumped the gun.” The NCAA has been “working through” this issue for decades, never landing on something resembling a solution. Now, they’re attempting to speed the process along. But in order to do that, they have to “work through” and refine the wording until 2021. Or 2023? The truth is, it’ll probably end up being neither. Athletes at the Division I level – LSU, Siena, Duke, or Marist – are unlikely to see adequate compensation during the four years they spend at their universities. Every time the NCAA tries to make a change, they hit a snag. Or they find a snag to hit. 

Edited by Amelia Nick

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