Len Elmore has a poster advertising Converse sneakers, which he and other Terps basketball players wore as part of coach Lefty Driesell’s shoe contract, in his Maryland home. It shows Elmore, still Maryland’s all-time leading rebounder 45 years later, pulling one down during a 1973 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game against Virginia.
“I didn’t get a dime for that,” Elmore said Tuesday. "I only got one or two pairs of free shoes from the school, nothing from Converse.”
After decades of hewing to an ethos of amateur athletics, the NCAA announced Tuesday that it was taking the first steps to allow student athletes to profit from use of their names, images and likenesses — a move welcomed in Maryland athletics circles.
The organization’s Board of Governors voted unanimously to permit the practice "in a manner consistent with the collegiate model.” The action calls for the NCAA’s three divisions to immediately consider updates to their bylaws and have them in place no later than January 2021.
“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said Michael Drake, the board’s chair and president of Ohio State University, in a statement.
Added NCAA president Mark Emmert: “As a national governing body, the NCAA is uniquely positioned to modify its rules to ensure fairness and a level playing field for student-athletes. The board’s action today creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”
Much remains uncertain. But Elmore, who was a three-time all-ACC player and an All-American as a senior in 1973-74, said it’s long past due for college student-athletes to be compensated in this way.
“It certainly is about time that one’s property right in their name, image and likeness ... has value, and they can receive value for the use of it,” said Elmore, who went on to a 10-year career in the ABA and NBA and later graduated from Harvard Law School. “There’s no guarantee that student-athletes will. That’s so much more than [just getting a scholarship].”
“But your name and likeness is a property right and by authority you should be receiving some sort of value for it, I’ve always believed that."
In its statement announcing the board’s vote, the NCAA laid out several guidelines it would seek to follow. Those include: equal treatment of student-athletes and non-athlete students, a continued focus on education, an understanding that the athletes must not be paid for their athletic performance or participation, and assurance that compensation won’t be used to affect a student-athlete’s recruitment or decision to transfer.
The news comes less than a month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which will allow college athletes in the state to profit off their names, images and likenesses beginning in 2023, with several other states expressing interest in similar legislation in the weeks that followed.
In the last General Assembly session, Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, had proposed giving Maryland’s college athletes the right to unionize, but the bill was amended to create a commission to study how to best ensure fair treatment of student-athletes. Lierman said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday night that she hopes to bring some form of name-image-likeness legislation to Baltimore.
“I am pleased to see the NCAA finally recognize the need for an athlete to benefit from his or her own likeness,” Lierman said. “This is a good first step to treating our college athletes fairly, but many open issues remain. I look forward to introducing legislation to ensure we are righting the imbalance of power that currently exists between universities and student athletes.”
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts who has consulted in the sports industry, said that the legal pressures from California and other states likely steered the NCAA toward this decision.
"I think it’s definitely an encouraging and positive step forward. At this point, however, it’s only a baby step,” Zimbalist said.
“What it is clearly is an attempt to deflate the political and legal pressure that has been building up very forcefully and rapidly around name, image and likeness payments, so the NCAA is finally saying ... ‘OK, we’re going to be good guys, and we’re going to be progressive, and we’re going to allow compensation for names, images and likenesses,’ but they say in their statement they’ll allow it in a way that’s consistent with the collegiate athletic model."
However, he cautioned, “They haven’t told us what they’re going to allow yet. ... The real substance is yet to come.”
Fifth-year Maryland senior offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, who played at McDonogh, said after practice Tuesday night that he is “really excited for future players who are going to have the opportunity to make money off themselves, which seems like that make sense.”
Though McKennie isn’t quite sure how the potential changes are going to be regulated among the different competitive levels of college athletics, “it’s an exciting step in the right direction,” he said. “I’m glad the NCAA finally took up this issue and made the correct decision, hopefully.”
McKennie said that the potential for athletes to earn income while in school is “treating us like normal students. If someone in the marching band wanted to go make a mixtape and go sell for them playing the trumpet, they can do it and make money easily. It doesn’t make sense that we can’t do the same thing. It’s a common sense decision.”
University of Maryland athletic director Damon Evans, who played football at Georgia, called the recommendation by the NCAA’s Board of Governors “a step in the right direction.” Evans said it’s too early to fully grasp what will happen if and when the recommendation becomes part of the organization’s bylaws.
“There’s a lot of work that’s still ahead because now you’ve got to come up and say, ‘What are those bylaws that we have to take a look at? ... How do we stay within the framework that they’ve outlined?’ " he said. "I believe that student-athletes being able to have the opportunity to utilize his or her name, image and likeness within a certain framework is the right thing to do.”
Officials have said that compensating athletes might reduce cheating. Evans doesn’t think such under-the-table payments to college athletes would necessarily be eliminated if this recommendation becomes part of NCAA practice.
“As far as whether it would prevent people who might be unscrupulous, if that’s the correct terminology, from doing the things that they do, people who are that way are going to do that. In my mind, I don’t think you can fully prevent people from being involved [illegally],” Evans said. “I look at this more as an opportunity for student-athletes, and I think creating those opportunities for student-athletes is fair and is the right thing and the right step moving forward.”
Evans said it might be an opportunity for student-athletes to earn income from “third parties” such as local businesses that might want them to sell their products.
“I’m not so sure that the institutions should be involved in those types of arrangements and things of that nature,” Evans said. “There should be third-party things discussed about fair-market value and reporting the potential earnings and things like that. I’m not ready to say what that should look like because there are a lot of details that need to be hashed out. But opening the discussion and providing those various opportunities for them to utilize name, image and likeness is the right step.”
The questions yet to be answered, Zimbalist said, include the exact definitions of names, images and likenesses; whether licensing money comes from the student-athletes’ respective schools or independent third parties, and whether those third parties must be sponsors of the university; whether the student-athletes are able to profit year round or if there are limitations such as during the season, the offseason or the summer; and if there will be a cap on the amount of income the student-athletes can make.
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“The devil is in the details,” Zimbalist said, “and the details are still to come."