Why the Olympic Model would work

Mention the Olympic model of amateurism to many college officials and the response is swift and powerful.

“That would be like the old west,” said Paul Kowalczyk, current assistant athletics director at the University of Illinois and former AD at Colorado State University and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Is it just sell your own image or does it include having schools bid on your services. That would create chaos; it basically professionalizes what is an amateur sport. I think there are tons of problems. The biggest is if you start paying your athletes, they are basically an employee, then you have worker’s compensation and unions. If they were going to do that, for me, shut it down, go back to the Division III model.”

Give Kowalczyk credit, his belief in the amateur model is real, as is his knowledge of how important media money has become to college athletics.

Dave Kidwell, a former Sports Information Director at Eastern Illinois University, also said that the idea of an Olympic model could be problematic.

“The paperwork alone if you did this, you’d have to hire three more people, just to keep tabs on what athletes are doing,” Kidwell said. “You give an inch, you take a mile.”

Both Kowalczyk and Kidwell freely admit the system is broken. Both understand that a system that relies on taking from the student athlete and giving to the athletics program, isn’t working. But the thought of an Olympic approach, where athletes were free to profit from their own likeness, like any other college student, gives them pause.

“The rich would get richer,” Kidwell said. “The Ohio State’s, Michigan’s, Alabama’s already have a big advantage and if a coach goes to one of the big donors and says we need this guy, it could turn into a bidding war. The gap would widen to schools with deeper pockets.”

At the very least, to schools that have boosters who are willing to pay student athletes for their likeness or to advertise their products.

But that happens already. Students go to the school that will give them the best deal and the best exposure. Changing their ability to profit from that exposure isn’t going to change the fact that five star recruits are going to be heading to one place, while three star recruits will be going somewhere else.

The answer to this, despite the protests of the administrators, is the Olympic model of amateurism. First, what is the Olympic model. Basically, the Olympic model doesn’t require the NCAA to pay athletes. What the Olympic model does is it allows athletes the opportunity to sign endorsement deals that allow them to profit off their likeness. When this model first went into effect, critics said that this would end amateurism at the Olympic level. It didn’t. They said that people wouldn’t want to see professionals compete at the Olympics. They do.

What’s interesting about this model is that it’s truly a free market system. Most athletes don’t get anything from the Olympic model. Others do. Success breeds endorsements.

The fact is, the Olympic model of amateurism is the BEST route for Universities to take, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ethically the right thing to do.

Broken down to its simplest form, the O’Bannon case is not as much about amateurism as it is about right of publicity. O’Bannon, and Sam Keller, both looked at how the NCAA continued to profit, from O’Bannon’s likeness in NCAA tournament advertisements and from EA Sports video games that used Keller’s likeness down to the sweatbands he used, to make a profit for the NCAA.

The NCAA has always tightly held on to the fact that it owns a student’s likeness during his or her time in college. In fact, an athlete can’t compete at the NCAA level without signing form NCAA Form 08-3a. The form consists of seven parts, including parts three and four, an affirmation of the student athlete’s status as an amateur athlete and a statement concerning promotion of NCAA championships and other NCAA events. The form requires the student athlete to affirm that he or she is an amateur athlete and requires student athletes to allow the NCAA, or any third party acting on the behalf of the NCAA to use their name or picture to “generally promote NCAA Championships or any other NCAA events, activities, or programs.”

If athletes decline to sign the form, they become ineligible to compete at the NCAA level.

In other words, you don’t sign away your rights, you don’t play. In the 1990s, Jeremy Bloom, a football player for the University of Colorado, challenged this. He was also an Olympic skier and had endorsement deals that he needed to be able to raise money to compete in the Olympics. The NCAA ruled him ineligible and an appellate court ruled in favor of the NCAA. But, in the ruling, the judge said that the NCAA must have the student’s best interests at heart. As the money has continued to grow, it has become clear that the NCAA does not have the athletes’ best interests at heart.

“It’s hard to defend because if the average student could do that, why can’t the athlete,” Kidwell said. “The average student can do something like that. It gets harder and harder to defend that proposition. The student athlete should have the same opportunities as the average student.”

Ethical reasoning, from Kant, to Rawls, to Mill to Aristotle all provide arguments that suggest that athletes should be able to own the rights to their name and likeness. Ethical reasoning doesn’t matter when you are talking about billions of dollars. Instead, this approach puts the power in the hands of the athletes. It will take some power away from coaches and, despite protestations from NCAA officials, it could actually take some power away from the power conferences.

Here’s how. Currently, the members of the five power football conferences (remember, football is where all the money is anyway and the NCAA has NO control over that money anyway) are telling all the other conferences in the NCAA that if they don’t get more power to do things their way, then they might break apart and form their own division. This is so they can pay student athletes their “Full” scholarship. What this basically means is that they want to vote themselves more power in the NCAA. The five (six in basketball) conferences also dominate NCAA college basketball money, with 68 percent of the NCAA television revenue money heading their way. The argument that they need more power is absurd.

Go to the Olympic model, let students make their own money and you take that power away from the major conferences.

The question is, would this allow for a shift in power conferences. Would more power shift to schools near a major media communications hub? Conferences are more worried about that than they are about boosters getting some schools more recruits.

2. What about Title IX?

Title IX could be a problem with the NCAA’s current possible approach. Who do you pay the “Full scholarship” to? If they went to the Olympic model, the fact is that most endorsements would go to the male athletes of the revenue producing sports. But the female athletes who excel at their sports would be able to find a niche in endorsing products. They would have the same opportunity to promote themselves as other athletes. It would be an open market.

I’m at over 1,200 words on this. Will continue this argument tomorrow.


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