Student Athletes Are One Step Closer To Benefitting From The $14 Billion Industry They Drive

'We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes'

On Tuesday (October 29), the National College Athletics Association's board of governors voted on whether to allow student-athletes to be compensated for their names, images, and likeness while they play at the collegiate level, CNBC reports. But the result is more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no."

The board decided in a unanimous vote that colleges could allow student-athletes to be compensated for their names, images, and likeness, which sounds like a great thing for athletes who don't currently make any money from their craft... Right? Maybe. The trick here is that the board asked colleges to consider making a change — they didn't actually make a change to NCAA bylaws, nor did they ensure that athletes can get paid for playing the actual game. Instead, as The Guardian reports, they've tasked each of the NCAA's three divisions to set up new rules, which should be in place by 2021.

"In the Association’s continuing efforts to support college athletes, the NCAA’s top governing board voted unanimously to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model," the NCAA said in a statement. "The Board of Governors’ action directs each of the NCAA’s three divisions to immediately consider updates to relevant bylaws and policies for the 21st century."

In a statement provided to CNBC about the vote, Board of Governors chairman and president of Ohio State University Michael V. Drake said: "We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes. Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education. This modernization for the future is a natural extension of the numerous steps NCAA members have taken in recent years to improve support for student-athletes, including full cost of attendance and guaranteed scholarships."

While this vote could be seen as a step in the right direction, it doesn't amount to much without further action by the divisions themselves. USA Today's FTW! points out that "the collegiate model" as it stands is that students... don't get paid. And while the vote urges NCAA to "immediately consider" changing its rules, the board of governors also issued a bunch of guidelines for those changes, up to and including one that "make[s] clear that compensation for athletics performance or participation is impermissible." In other words, student-athletes would not be allowed to get paid for showing up for or playing a game, the way professional athletes do at their jobs.

Whatever the divisions decide will impact the more than 460,000 student-athletes who play sports for American colleges every year. And there's a lot of money on the line if the NCAA does decide to update its rules: Per ESPN, the association generated over $1 billion in revenue during the 2016-2017 school year, and the college sports industry is estimated at $14 billion a year, which is higher than the GDP of several countries. While some of that industry-wide net is cycled back to scholarships and other resources for students while they are at school, students have rarely been the direct recipients of the money they help generate. Students have also been barred from using agents, and past student-athletes have had to give up outside earnings or revenue related to their sport in order to become eligible for a scholarship. In 2010, Reggie Bush gave back the Heisman trophy he earned for playing at the University of Southern California because it was determined that he had received "improper benefits" while playing for the Trojans.

Students and their families have protested the rules for years, and the fight came to a peak when California governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act in September. That month, the NCAA came out against the bill, joining universities and colleges in its opposition. While the bill did not stipulate that schools had to pay athletes, it protected students who chose to hire agents, and allowed them to sign endorsement and sponsorship deals the way professional athletes do, so long as those deals did not contradict any deals the school had with direct competitors. It was not set to go into effect until 2023, but many people hoped that its signage would force the association to update its rules before then.

Plenty of professional athletes have spoken out in support of letting students benefit from their hard work while they're still in school. Among them is LeBron James, the star Lakers player who expressed support for the Fair Pay to Play Act earlier this year. James was the number one draft pick in 2003, and scored a spot on the Cleveland Cavaliers directly after finishing his senior year at St. Vincent-St.Mary High School in Akron, Ohio.

"That No. 23 jersey would have gotten sold all over the place without my name on the back, but everybody would have known the likeness. My body would have been on the 2004 NCAA basketball video game. And the Schottenstein Center [at Ohio State University] would have been sold out every single night if I was there," he told reporters at a recent Lakers practice, per the Washington Post. "Me and my mom, we didn’t have anything. We wouldn’t have been able to benefit at all from it. The university would have been able to capitalize on everything."

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