Josh Kendall

‘This gives me angst.’ Is NCAA about to allow players to serve as paid pitchmen?

The NCAA is exploring allowing its athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness. Ray Tanner is worried about that.

“This is personal opinion but when I see name, image, likeness it makes me feel like it is pay for play,” South Carolina’s athletics director said. “I’m like, ‘This gives me angst.’ ”

Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey feels the same way.

“My stance hasn’t changed since I testified in the (Ed) O’Bannon case,” Sankey said. “I think the funding and financial support provided to student-athlete is appropriately tied to their educational pursuits. There is a period at the end of that sentence.”

As much as Sankey may want a definitive punctuation, things in college athletics are no longer that simple. As head football coaches’ salaries continue to grow to staggering heights and athletic departments in the SEC and other major conferences rake in millions of dollars annually, even the NCAA can see it’s getting harder and harder to justify its amateurism model. Especially when a U.S. Congressman, Mark Walker of North Carolina, has introduced a bill that would take away the tax exempt status of amateur sports organizations that prohibit their members from benefiting from their own name, image and likeness.

“There are so many forces pushing each and every way,” USC president Harris Pastides said. “At some point, the courts and the lawyers took over. We’ll see where it goes.”

In May, the NCAA announced a working group to explore the issues surrounding name, image and likeness compensation, which could allow active college athletes to serves as paid sponsor for businesses and/or receive money for their autograph.

“Given the circumstances, I think (looking into the issue) is appropriate,” Sankey said at the SEC’s annual meetings this year.

Still, it worries Tanner and some of his colleagues.

“We pay for all kinds of things we never did before,” Tanner said. “I think we’re in a good place, and I don’t know that there would be a way to make that work personally.”

It would be tricky, admits former South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, one of the players who would have benefited the most from name, image, likeness compensation.

“I think there is a place for it. My only thing is, it’s never going to equal,” Shaw said. “You are always going to have star players who will benefit more than other players and other sports. It would probably affect the dynamic in the locker room in a great way.”

South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp and many of his colleagues were supportive of the idea.

“I’m absolutely in support of it,” Muschamp said. “As much as we can help the players, we need to.”

Georgia basketball coach Tom Crean went even further.

“Something needs to be done and I think the fact that the committee is being put together means it will be done,” Crean said. “I don’t think there’s any question that something needs to be done.”

Coaches, though, almost have to take that approach. Any coach who made a public statement against it would have it used against him on the recruiting trail. Privately, most coaches have the same concerns Tanner has. What happens if a local car dealer decides to the star quarterback or star running back is worth $20,000 per year as a spokesman? How do the offensive linemen feel about that?

“How does that work in your locker room?” Tanner wondered.

He also wondered if some of a school’s donor base might decide to invest their money straight into athletes instead of, say, donating for a $50 million football operations center.

Although the NCAA has decided to explore the issue, it has not decided to talk about it. University of Georgia president Jere Morehead is a member of the NCAA’s committee, but told The State this week that the organization had asked him not to speak about the issue.

Former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who is now the Gamecocks director of player personnel, is another player who figures to have benefited most from name, image and likeness compensation due to his popularity in the community, but The State’s request to speak to Lattimore about the issue was denied by USC because it was asked not to speak on the matter.

The NCAA may be embarrassed to talk about the subject simply because it goes against an argument the organization has been making long and loud about the importance of its current amateur model, which does not allow athletes to receive any compensation beyond what is provided by schools through scholarships, cost of attendance stipends and incidentals such as food and clothing.

USC professor Mark Nagel worked as researcher in O’Bannon vs. NCAA on the side of O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball player who brought a lawsuit arguing that athletes should receive compensation for the NCAA’s use of their likeness (such as in video game). The court found that the NCAA’s rule were an unreasonable restraint of trade in violation of antitrust law, but an appeals court decision allowed the NCAA to continue operating without making any payment to athletes.

“The NCAA spent a tremendous amount of time in the O’Bannon case and post O’Bannon saying the entire educational model it has built itself upon would crumble if these athletes were provides compensation for name, image and likeness,” said Nagel, a professor in the department of sport and entertainment management. “I think it’s an interesting thing that they are now going to explore going against something they spent millions and millions of dollars trying to defend. I think it’s going to make a whole lot of the things the NCAA has stated for the last 20, 30, 40 years look in many ways quite foolish.”