Miami’s Wong shows college sports are rushing to the free market


An agent for a prominent college athlete has finally said out loud what schools are probably hearing privately: Pay the player more or he’ll transfer to a school that will.

The cheeky request made on behalf of University of Miami basketball star Isaiah Wong last week provided a rare and unvarnished glimpse into how elite college sports have been transformed by the right of student-athletes to earn money through endorsements.

Teammates compare contracts. Player backers trade barbs. And coaches and administrators are struggling to keep their rosters full — and players happy — without breaking the rules.

If Wong’s agent hasn’t technically crossed the line of what’s allowed – players can’t request payment simply in return for a promise to play at a specific school – then he’s firmly planted his foot on the line, according to labor experts.

“We’re moving quickly toward full-market professionalization for these NCAA players,” said Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor law at the University of Illinois. “It’s very clear that it’s not really about endorsements, it’s about paying guys for their performance.”

Until recently, sponsorship deals — or any compensation other than scholarships — were strictly off limits to college athletes. Paying students was seen as a threat to the ideal of amateur sport. But legal challenges by athletes seeking to reap some of the billions of dollars schools were making from the sport’s forced change. In 2019, California became the first state to pass a law allowing athletes to earn money through endorsements, autograph signings and other activities, and in July 2021 the NCAA lifted its ban. decades old.

The NCAA left only loosely defined guidelines in place: the agreements could not be used to lure recruits or as a form of fee-for-service contracts.

Wong, who apparently opted to stay in Miami, was surely not the first player to ask a representative to make a claim based on a player’s perceived market value, and he won’t be the last, sources said. experts.

“He was just the first to be so public about it,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.

Tens of thousands of athletes across many sports have cashed in, according to Opendorse, a company that works with schools on player compensation issues ranging from brand building to compliance.

Offers can be worth as little as a few hundred dollars; some would exceed $1 million. Footballers earn the most, followed by women’s and men’s basketball players, according to Opendorse. Endorsements can be found everywhere, even in seemingly low-key sports like golf, rowing and hockey.

So far, only individual players have enjoyed making big deals, but that could change. LeRoy, the labor law professor, wondered what would happen if players on the same basketball team jointly applied for more generous endorsement pay, putting a program in a bind.

It’s easier for a football team to bounce back if players looking for higher endorsements transfer to other schools because rosters are bigger than in basketball. But keeping everyone happy is a challenge for coaches.

“The 85 players are your roster and your free agents every year,” Berry said. “She is a professional model. It is no longer a collegial model.

TCU football coach Sonny Dykes said rookies routinely ask about sponsorship deals.

“Basically all we can do is pass a number and say, ‘Hey, you can talk to this guy, and he’ll tell you what we can or can’t do.’ It really is that simple,” Dykes said. “What worries me is that someone makes a promise to a child and doesn’t keep it. We have no control over this.

In many cases, the people to call are those who run so-called collectives, sports marketing agencies that have sprung up to support specific schools and facilitate deals between their athletes and businesses such as apparel companies. , energy drink companies, car dealerships and restaurants.

In Texas, a group hangs $50,000 a year from individual offensive linemen for work in support of community charities, such as in-person appearances, promotions or representation. At the University of Oregon, billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight is part of a group that helps Ducks athletes get deals.

Nigel Pack, a male basketball player who transferred to Miami from Kansas State, signed with software company LifeWallet for $800.00 plus the use of a car for two years. Last year, UConn basketball player Paige Bueckers became the first college athlete to sign a deal to represent Gatorade.

According to a survey released Wednesday by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors from the 130 schools in the Football Bowl subdivision, a large majority of athletic directors are concerned that collectives are improperly using endorsement contracts to recruit players from high schools or colleges. other colleges.

“This is a time of transformation in college sport and our survey results show that (athletic directors) are extremely concerned about a number of key issues,” LEAD1 President Tom McMillen said.

The NCAA, the governing body for college sports, has taken a mostly passive approach since allowing sponsorship deals, and more than two dozen states have laws allowing sponsorship deals. Most state laws include a ban on pay-to-play.

But as cases like Wong’s illustrate how quickly college sports are changing, there’s new pressure to study the issue. On Thursday, commissioners from the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12, two of college sports’ wealthiest leagues, were scheduled to meet with lawmakers in Washington to push for some federal regulations, which could include possible bans on use endorsement contracts as recruitment incentives. and paid offers.

Leagues, schools and some coaches are worried about the new free-for-all that is upsetting the competitive balance, disrupting rosters and pushing more control over sports programs to outside forces.

What surprised many was how quickly deep-pocketed collectives and wealthy individuals aligned with major colleges poured in to raise and dangle millions of dollars in front of athletes.

“Nobody expected these collectives to form a year ago,” LeRoy said. “It shows us how out of control the whole system is. It has become a way for schools to find third-party payment for their sporting talent.

Even backers can be caught off guard when an athlete decides the money isn’t big enough or when a teammate perhaps becomes a financial rival.

Mit Winter, a sports and business law attorney in Kansas City, Mo., said some deals push the envelope and make it look like players are simply being paid to play, instead of being paid to players. market rate for endorsements.

“These deals can be said to violate NCAA rules and sometimes even state laws,” Winter said. “That’s kind of the big question: will the NCAA ever start investigating some of these trades?”

Some talk about a future of collective bargaining between athletes and schools. This would mean schools treating athletes more like employees, which they have resisted.

Last September, the National Labor Relations Board’s top lawyer said in a memo that college athletes should be treated like employees of their schools. This paved the way for athletes to unionize or bargain over working conditions.

Collective bargaining would require some flexibility and creative thinking from schools and conferences. It could also allow them to bring their institutional power into negotiations with athletes, who may have competing interests, such as gender equity and different health and safety needs in multiple sports.

“It would be a nervous time for teams and leagues. They don’t have the experience and their television contracts would be on hold,” LeRoy said. “But in the end, they would be able to get a stable solution to their work problems.”

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