The rules that until recently governed what college athletes may and may not do to earn money seemed absurd on their face.
An Associated Press story out of West Virginia, for example, tells of a football player who made money on the side as a folksinger — but could not do so under his own name. His solution was to perform under a stage name, Lucky Bill. Presumably, he could have worked at a Starbucks under his true name, Will Ulmer.
The difference is that work as a barista could not have been construed as profiting from his own name, image or likeness. Before the rules were changed on July 1, any profit from said name, image or likeness belonged to others, not to him.
The new rules are a long-needed improvement. At last, college athletes will be able to profit from their own celebrity through endorsement deals or other business arrangements. A few will be able to make a lot of money; some, a modest amount, and most will get practically (or literally) nothing. But the new rules are a giant step toward equity — we might even say toward justice.
The NCAA had tried for years to keep student athletes from getting the compensation they deserved. The hope-filled young athletes were allowed scholarships and stipends that paid for tuition or living expenses, but that's it. There was plenty of money being made — stadiums full of it — but it went to the broadcast networks, the coaches, the colleges, even to the NCAA itself. The athletes were hobbled by the official narrative that their motivation had nothing to do with money.
Of course, some of them were pursuing professional careers in their chosen sports, but that goal is an elusive dream for all but a tiny minority — 2%, according to the NCAA. For the other 98%, their fame at present is about all they're going to get. If they are able to leverage their celebrity into a lucrative side hustle — or even a lasting career — it's perverse to argue that they shouldn't be allowed to do it.
An article in Sunday's Star Tribune noted a few local success stories. Paige Bueckers, who honed her basketball skills at Hopkins High in Minnetonka, has signed an endorsement deal with StockX as a star player for the University of Connecticut. Olympic medalist and retiring University of Minnesota wrestler Gable Steveson has signed on to a pro career with the WWE. The rule change made it possible for him to engage in promoting WWE events and his own future status as one of its personalities.
On a more modest scale, Gopher basketball player Parker Fox has licensed his name for use on a local restaurant's tater tots. He told the Star Tribune that, through various ventures, he's made about $10,000 off his name since July. That amount may not be in the same league with Bueckers and Steveson, but it's a solid paycheck for a college student. His comments suggest a realistic view of his prospects:
"One day the basketball is going to stop bouncing," he said, "and I've got to have a little money in my bank account." He is working on his master's degree in sports management.
Meanwhile, Bueckers has suffered a leg fracture that will keep her off the court for as long as two months. Her injury is a reminder that college athletes (all athletes, really) subject their bodies to stresses and strains that may shorten their careers as competitors.
So if a line of athletic shoes or tater tots can help student athletes secure their future, we're all for it. When they couldn't — that was exploitation.