Future for NCAA on display now at Olympics

Jul 6, 2021

  Commentary: When the New Mexico Legislature passed SB 94 earlier this year, allowing college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image or likeness, some lawmakers feared we were picking a fight with the mighty NCAA.


If that was the case, the masters of collegiate sports just cried uncle.


The NCAA changed its rules last week, just as new laws here and in other states were taking effect. College athletes will now be able to hire agents, sign endorsement deals, make commercials, leverage their presence on social media and get paid for promotional appearances, autograph-signing sessions and coaching.


It wasn’t just states pressuring the NCAA to change, Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the NCAA’s request for immunity from antitrust laws. In that ruling, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.


“All of the restaurants in a region cannot come together to cut cooks’ wages on the theory that ‘customers prefer’ to eat food from low-paid cooks. … Movie studios cannot collude to slash benefits to camera crews to kindle a ‘spirit of amateurism’ in Hollywood.”


The court ruling in that case did not mandate that athletes be paid, but it’s not hard to see where this is leading.


For a glimpse into the future of the NCAA, all we need to do is look at Summer Olympics, which will start later this month in Tokyo, 


Avery Brundage, who led the International Olympics Committee from 1952 to 1972, was just as fierce in his devotion to the purity of amateur sports. But by the 1990s, when the Dream Team took the court in Barcelona, all of those barriers had come down.


The athletes who will represent the United States in Tokyo will be paid, but they’re a long way away from our concept of a professional athlete.


A recent documentary titled “The Weight of Gold,” looks at both the mental and financial strain placed on Olympic athletes. It features swimmer Michael Phelps, who talks frankly about his bouts with depression.


Phelps won an astounding 23 gold medals, making him one of the few athletes able to cash in on their Olympic fame. Every four years there are a handful of athletes who attract our attention, but even for them the window is short. When’s the last time we heard from Apollo Ohno? Simone Biles won’t still be making GrubHub ads next year at this time.


Those are the best of the best. The vast majority of Olympic athletes are just scraping by.


Athletes are now able to receive both stipends from their national organizations and commercial sponsorships, as well as prize money for winning events. But that’s often not enough to come close to paying the bills. It’s estimated that about half of the track and field athletes ranked in the top 10 in their event earn less than $15,000 a year from competing.


At $45 million for a 16-game season, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will likely make more money in one game than the entire Olympic archery, badminton, bicycling (BMX, mountain and road) canoe/kayak, equestrian, fencing, handball, judo, karate, rowing, shooting, volleyball (gym and beach) and water polo teams make combined in a year.


College sports will be no different. Almost all of the money will go to football and basketball players. Those in big cities and power conferences will rake in the most, and men will have far more financial opportunities than women. 


I’m not sure what that will mean for competitive balance or compliance with federal law mandating gender equality.