Imagine a time when you flick on your television and see an Audi commercial with Providence hoops star Alpha Diallo sitting in the front seat of a sweet A8.
How about a Matunuck Oyster Bar spot with Rhode Island guard Jeff Dowtin asking you to swing by for some chowder?
Come summertime, you can sign your aspiring hoopsters up to play in the David Duke Summer Camp.
Welcome to the brave new world of open, free markets in college athletics. While no coach, athletic director or collegiate marketing guru wants to touch this time bomb, it's coming into view with the speed of a Zion Williamson slam dunk.
In a true rarity, both liberals and conservatives feel giving student-athletes the right to profit off their name, image and likeness is a good thing. Who doesn't? Why is it fair for coaches to make millions, athletic departments to raise millions and conference offices to distribute many more millions to their schools when the actual talent isn't free to cut any deals?
The NCAA began studying NIL last spring but the passage of a law in California, the Fair Pay to Play Act, spurred proposals in other states and sped up the clock on the issue. Earlier this week the NCAA's Board of Governors voted unanimously to permit the opportunity to benefit from the use of name, image and likeness "in a manner consistent with the collegiate model."
No one knows what that means, including Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. They chair a working group charged with setting up the framework of this new model. Like every other college president and athletic director who's created this billion dollar sports business, they're not sure where to turn next. "Maybe it needs regulation or minimal regulation or heavy regulation. We don't know. We're just not there yet," Ackerman said.
What every coach and athletic director fears is an "open season" scenario. Examples? Alabama's quarterback pulls in $500,000 in commercials. Third-party agents work their way into the recruiting process and line up marketing deals with an array of businesses for top hoopsters at certain schools. A crafty coach gets word to a star freshman at another school with few marketing deals and spins tales of grandeur if he'll transfer and become his next point guard.
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Clearly there need to be some "guardrails" instituted in all this. Whether they satisfy meddlesome legislators who should be worrying about health-care costs and pitiful public education, is anyone's guess but no one will be served well by a free, wide-open market. The chances the NCAA's new regulations are labeled restraint of trade and land in court somewhere are almost guaranteed.
"At a big basketball school I think an agent could get a player a $100,000 commercial. A couple of them," Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim said this week. "Is that where we want to go? OK, that's fine, if that's where we want to go. But don't think it's going to be a nice, simple thing, like a thousand here, a couple thousand there. It is not going to be that way."
The unintended consequences in all this are "a Chinese puzzle, a really difficult puzzle," according to Boeheim. As Rhode Island athletic director Thorr Bjorn says "the challenge is going to be how the new rules are followed. I think conceptually this is the next logical step for student-athletes (but) I do worry that the gaps between students participating in some sports versus others is certainly going to expand."
One issue that could arise: Businesses choose to pay a few star players and cancel agreements with the schools. This would squeeze budgets and maybe force schools to cut non-revenue sports. "There is a good likelihood that'll come out of the hide of other programs: men's Olympic sports programs and women's programs," said PAC-12 Commissioner Larry Scott.
As we blur the line between amateurs and the pros it's awful easy to just tell kids with their hands out to just go pro. That's old-world thinking. The new world says I may never be good enough to be a pro but have value when I'm in college playing for the Friars or catching passes at Notre Dame. I want to monetize that value, just like the student next to me who sells her art or picks up some change playing in a Saturday night rock band.
That's the argument and it's tough to argue with. One clear takeaway in all this? While there is plenty of hands-out talk about marketability and commercialization, there is precious little about the value of the free education scholarship athletes can receive.
"What I do know is the narrative isn't being painted on what we as colleges are already doing for student-athletes," Friars coach Ed Cooley said. "We do a good job in college basketball of supplying everything you need, but now it's coming to a want."
Here's another possible unintended consequence, one that NCAA leaders really need to think about. How about the fans in the stands, boosters who root for good old State U regardless of who is playing quarterback. They like college sports, not the pros. How many people do you hear say they love taking in a game at the Dunk way, way more that forking over triple the ticket price to see a bad NBA game at TD Garden?
Will this new commercialization turn off college sports fans? If that's not a concern, it should be.
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