BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/30/2020

Thiel: Finally, a ‘new normal’ re-makes NCAA

Ahead of the posse, NCAA gives up its death grip on amateurism. Players can be paid for use of their names. College sports leaps from 19th century to the 21st.

The NCAA headquarters still stands, despite an attack by reform. / NCAA

Huskies football coach Jimmy Lake enters the home of prized California high school five-star recruit Latissimus Dorsey.

Dorsey: Whatcha got for me, coach?

Lake: Serious Seattle bling. We have a new football video game, MadMax 2022, from Nintendo, which wants your exclusive endorsement. We have a paid internship from Microsoft in their G5 Deathstar program that won’t require work except for you hosting its YouTube channel in the summer. And finally, we have an unlimited account for you at Seattle’s most unaccountably downscale hipster joint, Dick’s. Package’s first-year value: $150,000.

Dorsey: From USC, I got 10 speaking lines with Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther 2.

Lake: Um . . .

Dorsey: See you in the Coliseum, coach.


Maybe that’s how it will go. Maybe not.

For sure, college sports will be different after the NCAA nervously hit the big red button on the time machine Wednesday, launching it from the mid-19th century, when British royals concocted sports amateurism, into the 21st century.

And you wonder why Chris Petersen left big-time coaching.

I don’t know where on his grievance list was the permitting of athletes to earn money for their football work. But it was there. Despite my several efforts at his pressers, Petersen would merely clench his teeth and sweep left around my questions.

He knew trouble was coming.

After the California legislature in September made a law prohibiting the NCAA from punishing its state schools that allow athletes to earn money from use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL), the centuries-long fight to prop up amateurism was over.

Rather than wait for many of the other 49 states to follow suit, the NCAA grudgingly set about to build its own gallows. If you’re in the mood — and what the hell else are you doing this morning, anyway? — here is the complete release.

The governing board unanimously voted in favor of permitting college athletes to financially profit from the use of their NILs. The policy is set to go into effect in 2021.

The key point in the release ended the second paragraph:

The board emphasized that at no point should a university or college pay student-athletes for name, image and likeness activities.

That means that income to players comes not from the schools but from third parties, e.g., Nintendo, Microsoft, Dick’s, Marvel Studios. In that way, athletes are like music majors who work jobs on the side giving lessons. They’re not, you know, employees. Even if in the case of athletes, with practice, film study, injury rehab and travel, they are full-time job holders.

The NCAA can still sign billion-dollar rights fees, its schools can still pay millions to coaches and executives, but they still won’t pay athletes. Somebody else will.

That’s where we slide into high drama: Will recruits make their school choices, or, once enrolled, decide to transfer, based on the commercial connections schools can scare up with advertisers/sponsors/boosters/donors?

The NCAA thinks its new rules proscribe athletes from being brand endorsers by limiting income to businesses “consistent with the collegiate model.” What does that mean?

Currently, the rules allow athletes to endorse only the NCAA, its member institutions and the branding partners in licensing agreements with NCAA institutions (e.g., Nike). Hah.

My guess is that one athlete could hire a dorm buddy who’s a first-year law student to file a suit against that limitation and win the case on summary judgment before the coronavirus gets to halftime with us. While they’re at it, they also might want to sue for the right of, say, a UW athlete to secure a Nike endorsement even though UW is outfitted by adidas.

These, of course, are the sorts of questions that are defined as the slippery slope. Once the NCAA agrees in principle, as it has, to permit acceptance of compensation by players, it’s only a matter of time before the balsa-wood rules preserving the remaining status quo of amateurism are blown apart by legal challenges.

Some will lament that this blatant professionalism threatens the sanctity of the collegiate model. I would say that should have been considered well before college coaches became the highest paid public employees in 39 of the 50 states.

And to those who fear the commercialism will benefit male athletes at the expense of women, there is nothing stopping a company from celebrating a female athlete with billboards, commercials and a social media campaign as she speaks well of the company’s products. Since they are 51 percent of the marketplace, my guess is women would be an attractive demo.

We are in a time of profound change when it is common to hear the phrase, “the new normal.”  In the small world of big-time college sports, the same is also true. In this case, the virus was exploitation, and the curve just got flattened.

April Madness.


  • Bruce McDermott

    Art, just fyi, a “first-year law student” can’t represent anybody in court. Need to be a member of the bar. I suppose such a student could draft a complaint, and his buddy could file it pro se, that is, representing himself (or herself), but that’s it.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the clarification on the exaggeration. How was the rest of the column.

      • Bruce McDermott

        Good! Although I’m not sure that the fall of this particular Empire is going to be premised so much on its own agreement to anything in principle. Pretty soon its agreement will be irrelevant.

        • art thiel

          Well, they have to start somewhere. But I did chuckle when I read that the descriptor the NCAA used to explain the long-awaited reform was to “modernize” the game. As if fair compensation for labor was like the internal combustion engine was to horses.

  • 1coolguy

    This will simply solidify the SEC as an even more dominant conference. Say what you may about other conferences and their followers, NO conferences’ fans are as literally FANATIC about their football teams as the SEC fans are.
    The national championship will simply forever be two SEC teams competing, with the occasional non-SEC team stumbling in from elsewhere.

    • art thiel

      Indeed, there is a high probability of a rich-get-richer outcome. Just like capitalism. Which is why amateurism has no place. We can debate the merits of capitalism, but that is the horse we are riding today.

    • Husky73

      Clemson is in the ACC.

      • 1coolguy

        Yes, “the occasional non-SEC team”

    • art thiel

      That’s possible, but the permutations of outcomes here are many. Suppose the smarter schools find a way to market their virtues and assets that surpass the ruthless privateers in the SEC. It’s really hard to say at the outset how this plays.

  • Guy K. Browne

    I have this vision of Chuck Barris dancing to zany music while boosters parade in front of a panel of highly recruited HS football players (or basketball players) to make their pitch. Eight seconds into the first presentation… GONG
    Literally, it’s going to be a gong show. Any premise of legitimate compensation for value provided will rapidly evaporate… if it hasn’t already. It will be boosters tripping over each other to land the highest rated players for their favored programs.
    For sure I think the players (and all college athletes) should be provided some compensation for their services, just not sure that I agree that what’s been decided on is the best solution.

    • Husky73

      Any Gong Show reference requires a thumbs up.

    • art thiel

      All plausible, but reform has to start somewhere. Nothing about this will be clean or easy, which is part of why the NCAA has stalled compensation for so long. But imagine if they had done it 30 years ago, when large numbers of people began calling out the foolish unfairness of amateurism. College ball would be professionalized, as it should be.

  • jafabian

    I suppose it was inevitable but I’m sad to see this become a reality. For me it’s a head scratcher to pay athletes and not, say a pre-law student or business major. Alums Bill Gates Sr and Ivar Haglund have brought more notoriety to UW than nearly any former UW athlete after their athletic careers ended. And the benefits of an athletic scholarship outweigh most other college scholarships. IMO it’s a huge Pandora’s Box opened that will never be shut.

    • art thiel

      The thing about athletic scholarships is that they are good only if the player is given the time and skills to exploit it. It is asking a lot for a kid from an under-funded school district, where little was asked of him academically, to jump into a giant college and manage a full class load and a full-time job (football and basketball). I’ve always said that time management is the biggest asset a scholarship kid can bring with him. Doesn’t often happen.