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Licensing athletes’ images

Topics/tags: Academia, short

One recent important change in the morass that we call college athletics is the decision by the NCAA to allow athletes to profit off of their image and identity [1]. I’m not sure that it’s the right approach to the complex issues at play. I also don’t think it’s fair that others profit off of a college athlete’s identity, such as by selling shirts with their name or by using that identity in video games. So perhaps it’s a step. But we need to acknowledge that there are lots of different situations at play and different ways to support athletes. For example, it strikes me that if a D3 football team has a player who cannot afford cleats, it should be able to provide that player with cleats [2].

Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about the potential impact of this change on athletes other than those in the big-money sports. What surprised me about that article, and many like it, is that it did not seem to raise the primary concern many have about this change, and it’s a concern that may even be applicable to these athletes.

What’s the concern? Let me try an example.

Let’s suppose that N. Bewster [3] is enthralled with volleyball at Grinnell. While Bewster is thrilled that Grinnell won the Midwest conference this year, he also knows that for that team to go to the next level, we need another great outside hitter [4]. Let’s also suppose that he has heard that high-school senior Killin K. [5] would be an outstanding recruit for the team and that she [6] has the academic credentials to be successful at Grinnell. As a D3 institution [7], Grinnell can’t give Killin an athletic scholarship. So how do we convince her to come? Bewster could decide offer her a contract to use her image, say for $100,000 per year, using the rationale that he expects to boost his business with t-shirts and mugs that say Killin K. eats Bewster’s Bagels, or something like that.

It seems to me that similar situations will happen regularly for top football and basketball recruits at D1 institutions. Certainly, related under the table arrangements regularly come to light. I wonder whether it will also affect other sports.

Disclaimer: All names are imaginary. Any resemblance of the names in this article to those of real people, including former trustees and current volleyball players, is completely coincidental.

[1] As you might expect, the NCAA did not make this decision on their own. Rather, legislative changes in California and planned legislative changes in other states effectively forced this decision.

[2] My understanding of the current NCAA rules is that this is not permissible.

[3] Pronounced booster.

[4] I have no idea whether or not we need another good outside hitter. I’m pretty sure that we have at least two great ones. Please go along with the narrative anyway.

[5] So named because of the number of kills her parents knew she would make.

[6] We also assume that Killin self-identifies as female.

[7] Or because our volleyball team is a D3 team.

Version 1.0 of 2019-11-22.