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NCAA Reversal On Student-Athlete Pay Likely Not Fair Fix, Sports Marketing Expert Says

College sports is big business, and on Tuesday, the NCAA Board of Governors voted to allow student-athletes to get a piece of the action for the first time. Credit: Amy Meredith/
College sports is big business, and on Tuesday, the NCAA Board of Governors voted to allow student-athletes to get a piece of the action for the first time. Credit: Amy Meredith/

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announcement on student-athlete compensation Tuesday came after years of pressure from the athletes, lawyers and politicians. But critics of the change warn that it might not provide much fairness.

The NCAA Board of Governors votedto reverse their position after years of pressure in court and from lawmakers, especially in California and, increasingly, Florida. 

“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and president of The Ohio State University.A sports management expert worries the NCAA reversal on compensation is not fair to all student-athletes.

Prior to the vote, student-athletes could not receive any compensation beyond free tuition and housing. The emphasis was on "student."

The move was widely applauded, but critics of the change said the equity that it promises for student-athletes may be illusory.

“If you're thinking it's going to be equitable, and you think it's going to be gender equitable, you think it's going to be fair, it's not,” said Bill Sutton, before the change was announced. Sutton is the director emeritus of the University of South Florida’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program.

“Those athletes who are in a position to market, promote and sell themselves are going to finally be able to get a check. And the athletes who aren't in that position are not going to get a check. So it's like there's going to be haves and have nots now.”

His colleague is Michelle Harrolle, a former student-athlete and his successor as director of the Vinik Sport program. For most athletes, she said, the change is positive but will not alter their primary role as students.

“People see the NCAA, they see large scale universities, there's only a handful that really make a lot of revenue that aren't subsidized by universities,” said Harrolle, who was a college swimmer at the University of Florida. “And that's why 'students' in student-athlete is the most important thing and why the NCAA focuses on that because for the vast majority, it is an academic endeavor.”

Late last week, Florida's top elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, added her support to a growing bipartisan list of people in Tallahassee who want to see college student-athletes compensated. Gov. Ron DeSantis, the highest-ranking Republican in the state, announced his support for  the change last week, as well.

The NCAA outlined principles for allowing compensation to student athletes, including:

•             Treating student-athletes the same as non-athletes on campus unless there was a reason to differentiate.

•             “Enhance principles of diversity, inclusion and gender equity.”

•             Ensuring that compensation doesn’t influence recruiting.

•             Keeping education and the college experience as priorities for student-athletes.

•             Disallowing payment for performance or participation alone.

Sutton said he also is concerned about the impact on recruiting.

“It opens up a can of worms,” Sutton said. “Because if now I can use my likeness, and be compensated for my likeness, what's to stop a booster club at the university from saying, 'Yeah, you come here, we're going to hire you as an endorser for my Ford dealership. We're going to use your picture and help sell Fords and you're going to get $50,000 for that. How's that sound?'"

“Now I know that the unintended consequence of all of this is this could happen. I'm not saying it will,” he added. “But I'm saying the likelihood that it will is pretty high. It sets up a perfect scenario to do something that's not been legitimate and legitimize it.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Nikki Fried is Florida's Agriculture Commissioner, not Attorney General.

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Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.