The governing body for college sports on Tuesday took the first steps toward allowing its athletes to monetize their fame — and perhaps end more than a century of hard-line codes on amateurism.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Board of Governors, meeting at Emory University in Atlanta, voted unanimously to begin a process that would let college athletes to “benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness.”
“We must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes,” said Michael Drake, chairman of the NCAA board and president of Ohio State University.
The NCAA said it wants new codes to be in place by early 2021.
“Additional flexibility in this area can and must continue to support college sports as a part of higher education," Drake said.
"This modernization for the future is a natural extension of the numerous steps NCAA members have taken in recent years to improve support for student-athletes, including full cost of attendance and guaranteed scholarships."
The NCAA, which governs 450,000 athletes at more than 1,200 schools nationwide, insisted their athletes will still be amateur despite this new opportunity to earn money.
“As a national governing body, the NCAA is uniquely positioned to modify its rules to ensure fairness and a level playing field for student-athletes,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. “The board’s action today creates a path to enhance opportunities for student-athletes while ensuring they compete against students and not professionals.”
The NCAA's announcement, though, was still viewed skeptically by Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a group that supports pay for college athletes
Huma said the fine print of the NCAA's action — and use of the term “benefit” — leads him to believe the association will try to severely limit how much an athlete could make, or even keep them from cash compensation.
In NCAA codes, the term “permissible benefit” refers to nominal perks such as meals and other educational costs that student-athletes can possibly accept.
“They’ll be looking at ways to narrow what players can have as use for their 'benefit,'" Huma, a former UCLA football player, told NBC News on Tuesday. “They could possibly try to ban cash as a benefit.”
Huma said his group will continue to push states to follow California’s lead in drafting sweeping legislation allowing for athletes to be paid in any deal they can cut.
The NCAA’s historic move came almost one month after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a first-in-the-nation bill that cleared the way for college players to be paid from endorsement deals.
The California legislation, which takes effect in 2023, allows student-athletes to be paid in endorsement deals and prohibits the NCAA and the schools from banning those compensated athletes.
Newsom signed the bill while appearing on LeBron James' HBO show "The Shop" and called the current system of unpaid athletes "a bankrupt model."
After the NCAA's action on Tuesday, James called it "a beautiful day for all college athletes going forward."
"Thank you guys for allowing me to bring more light to it," James tweeted. "Not a victory but a start!"
The move was also met with scorn by critics of compensating college athletes. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr threatened to tax scholarships of compensated players.
"If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income," Burr said in a tweet. "I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to 'cash in' to income taxes."
The NCAA immediately tore into California’s new law — before seemingly embracing it four weeks later.
"Unfortunately this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses and not just in California,” the NCAA said in statement on Sept. 30.
The NCAA has become one of the sports world's most powerful money-making machines, all off the labor of unpaid athletes.
Back in 2016, the NCAA and basketball TV partners CBS and Turner extended their March Madness championship tournament deal through 2032, with the networks reportedly paying the association an average of $1.1 billion per season.
ESPN and the NCAA are now in the midst of a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal to televise the College Football Playoff games.