Two weeks ago, 224 young men experienced the thrill of a lifetime as they heard their name pronounced over the speakers in front of 100,000 fans at the NFL Draft.
That moment has to be one of the most rewarding of a football player’s career. After all the hard work, training, studying and sacrifice, he is now a football player in the National Football League – an achievement less than two percent of college athletes will ever reach.
There are a number of obvious advantages for a college football player who has his name called on draft night – pride, fame, multi-million dollar contracts, a dream career. Unfortunately, what many don’t understand is because of the flawed NCAA system, that is also the moment that athlete finally has the full rights to his own name restored.
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Despite some recent movement from the NCAA on the issue, most schools continue to require athletes to sign waivers giving up their publicity rights. That means that when an athlete commits to a school he or she is asked to surrender all rights to use his or her name, image and likeness. Essentially this strips them of their identity and sovereignty over their public image.
As with every other freedom, they don’t go away. They are just transferred to empower someone else. In this case, those publicity rights and the large wealth created by them are held tight by school athletic departments, sports conference board rooms and NCAA administrators.
The current student-athlete model prohibits 500,000 college athletes from having financial rights to use their name, while allowing an unrestrained, tax-exempt organization to monetize their talent to fill stadiums, sell memorabilia and sign multibillion dollar contracts.
That gets at the heart of what is wrong with the way we are currently treating our college athletes. The system lacks accountability for the NCAA, schools, coaches and players, opening the door for corruption in what has grown to a $12 billion a year industry.
Recently, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been leading a commission investigating ways to alleviate misconduct in college basketball, said, “The levels of corruption and deception are now at a point that they threaten the very survival of the college game as we know it.”
Even worse, the current model ensures a continuing cycle of poverty for many of the student-athletes, a large number of whom come from low-income communities and almost all of whom never play at a professional level. Only about half of Division I football and men's basketball players even leave school with a four-year degree.
The NCAA has been given time to assuage these concerns, but has ultimately fallen short. While the organization and their affiliated college athletic departments are in large part staffed with honorable people who work hard to serve young players and uphold integrity, it’s time we examined whether or not more motivation is needed to improve the system for players, administrators, and fans alike.
For the last several months, I have been holding discussions with thought leaders, schools and former college athletes on potential legislative solutions to this problem. I will continue those efforts and invite others to join. We need to have a conversation around this, not only to save the sports we love, but to truly care for the athletes who participate.
Signing a scholarship with a university should not be a moratorium on an athlete’s ability to use his or her name and image, or to attain a livable wage for their talent. Instead of a model that devalues hard work and strips athletes of the rights to their own name, we need a system that encourages the dignity of work and upholds the value of personal initiative and freedom — foundations of the American idea.
In the coming weeks, we will continue to engage in a national discussion on solutions and whether Congress needs to get involved.
We owe it to our college athletes to build a better system that incentivizes them to finish school, rewards their achievements and gives them opportunity and hope for the future. Now is the time. As Secretary Rice said, the survival of college sports may very well depend on it.