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Monday, May 16, 2022

Smith: A literal game changer

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Two recent developments have the potential to upend the multibillion-dollar college athletics landscape, especially as regards its two crown jewels: football and basketball. Fortunately, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) stand to become a major beneficiary of both occurrences. The first development is the recent change to the NCAA’s rules regarding college athletes being able to draw income from their name, image and likeness (NIL).

It is nearly impossible to overstate how monumental this change is. The NCAA is the gatekeeper of the rules that govern the participation of athletes across all college sports. Their rules range from the practical to the esoteric, from the indispensable to the arcane. Most importantly, the NCAA was the (mostly) unchallenged arbiter of anything that had to do with the ability of college athletes to earn money based upon their physical gifts.

The hallmark of the organization was an ironclad grip on restricting athletes from benefitting financially from their own labor. (Teenagers literally signed away their legal right to make money from their NIL upon becoming a college athlete.) This one-sided arrangement allowed for-profit companies and nonprofit colleges alike to rake in billions of dollars annually. It allowed college coaches to make as much as $10 million annually. Yet, college athletes often went without health insurance and even adequate food, especially when their sport was not in season. This decades-long reality was indentured servitude by another name.

That changed six months ago. The NCAA issued guidelines regarding how athletes may begin to benefit from their NIL. To be sure, the organization did not have a change of heart; their hand was unceremoniously forced by legal changes in some states and by increasing pressure from the federal government.

Why might this change be crucial to HBCUs? Consider this fact: The football complex at the University of Alabama is — by itself — worth more than the total endowment at many HBCUs. Think about that for a second. Despite the fact that the legendary football program at Louisiana’s Grambling State University once boasted more NFL players than any other school, HBCUs simply could not compete with the money that philanthropists, corporate sponsors and state governments lavished on predominately white institutions (PWIs). State-of-the-art facilities and national television exposure are very difficult for top athletes to forego.

Now that the people who produce the highly profitable labor can themselves benefit financially, they may be more inclined to consider attending an HBCU. Further, a few such decisions could lead to a virtuous cycle in which corporate sponsors and others would invest more money in HBCUs (hopefully, not just their athletic facilities), which in turn would encourage more top athletes to consider attending the schools.

This leads me to the second major development. The No. 1 overall college football prospect, Travis Hunter, decided to attend Jackson State University — the school at which NFL legend Deion Sanders is the head coach. Interestingly, Hunter had planned to attend Sanders’ alma mater, Florida State University. Obviously, it’s too soon to know whether this action will become a trend, but the possibilities are stunning. The phrase “game changer” doesn’t adequately describe what could take place in the near future. Eddie Robinson must be smiling from afar.

On a related note, the rule change could also have ripple effects vis-à-vis female athletes. As we saw with this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, facilities and amenities for female athletes often are not up to the same standards as are those for male athletes. A few superstar female athletes in sports like basketball and soccer could change that reality.

Of course, this titanic shift comes with potential problems. While there has never been a shortage of grifters and outright criminals who are poised to take advantage of college athletes (e.g., via “points shaving”), the new rules expand the opportunity for unscrupulous people to crawl out of their proverbial holes. Parents and other caring adults will need to be especially vigilant in the years ahead.

Still, all in all, things are looking up for college athletes. Their literal blood, sweat and tears will yield many of them financial resources. This is especially important to Black athletes, the majority of whom come from low-income backgrounds. Further, NIL dollars could have the unintended consequence of actually encouraging athletes to stay in college for four years.

Now, if they would only give Reggie Bush back his Heisman Trophy…

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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