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The NCAA blinked, and it’s about time

The NCAA has bowed down under pressure.

The days of virtually everyone involved in college sports — schools, coaches, media companies, advertisers — banking billions of dollars off the backs of student athletes while those young men and women are denied the right to make a dime are coming to an end.

And it’s about time.

Nearly a month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which allows college athletes to not only profit from their name, image and likeness but also hire an agent, the NCAA announced Monday that it will also open the doors for athletes to “benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model” (as the NCAA put it in its statement).

After Gov. Newsom’s move, the NCAA — which governs more than 1,100 schools and nearly 500,000 student-athletes across the nation — had little choice. Other states were threatening to propose similar “Fair Pay to Play laws and many sports fans and famous faces alike, such as LeBron James, were praising California for calling for an end to the chattel-like financial system of college sports.

But don’t get things twisted. The NCAA’s proposals and the Fair Pay to Play Act are not the same. Not even close.

For one, the NCAA has not revealed any details yet for how athletes will “benefit,” saying only in their statement that rules changes should be done on or before January 2021. It went on to talk about “modifying” rules and creating a path to “enhance opportunities” for student-athletes but it never mentioned “pay to play” or “agents” as does the California law. And it would be a mistake this early on to think that the NCAA is simply going to permit athletes to see a windfall in cash endorsement deals.

In this case monetize may not mean cash in hand for students.

For decades college athletes — many of whom are from middle-class and low-income families — have questioned why they are shamed, stripped of scholarships and banned from the ability to profit from their talents. And before anyone starts thinking the new rules open up the doors for student-athletes to be gifted fancy sports cars — stop right there.

My decades working in sports tell a much different story. Most of the student athletes I’ve worked with live in fear of breaking an unknown NCAA rule. They understand even the smallest violation can mean suspension, loss of scholarship, or worse. Many of the rules seem ridiculous.

Heading on a recruiting trip and forgot your shaving kit? Better not accept one from the school as a gift. That’s an NCAA violation.

Starving while giving an interview to a reporter? Better not share a large pizza with the reporter if you didn’t pay for it. That’s a no-no. Could be a bribe.

Want your mom to watch at least one of your track meets but she can’t afford a bus fare? Better not ask anyone for the money to buy her ticket.

I’ll never forget how horrible I felt after an ESPN photo shoot with a few college football players when I found out one of the athletes forgot to return a pair of Cole Haan shoes that my fashion director had given him to wear in the photos. The player was so excited about being in the magazine that he accidentally left with the shoes still on. Poor guy. He was frantic, thinking he’d lose his scholarship if anyone found out. Finally, after making about a dozen calls to try to find out what he should do, I told him to throw the shoes away. I don’t know if he did, but I never reported the incident.

Often unnecessarily punitive, NCAA violations are a nightmare to navigate. Reporting story after story of athletes who found themselves in violation, I never saw these students as hardened criminals for making a mistake — even if they did occasionally accept a little cash from a booster to pay for their mom to see a game.

NCAA President Mark Emmert has a huge challenge ahead of him. It will not be easy to draft rules that are transparent, fair and enforceable. Once money enters the equation, or, payments of any type to student athletes, there will be a shift in how we see amateur sports.

But it’s past time. These athletes sacrifice their physical and mental health and dedicate years of their lives perfecting their sports talents. They deserve to be compensated for it.

Tweeted LeBron James, an instrumental voice in the Fair Play for Pay conversation:

“Its a beautiful day for all college athletes going forward from this day on! Thank you guys for allowing me to bring more light to it. I’m so proud of the team at @uninterrupted bringing focus on this and to everyone who has been fighting this fight. Not a victory but a start!”

The California law goes into effect in 2023. There’s plenty of time left on the clock for the NCAA to launch a more equitable financial system for its athletes. Tick, tock.

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