Miami’s Wong shows college sports hurtles toward free market

An agent for a prominent college athlete finally said out loud what schools are likely to hear in private: Pay the player more, or he’ll transfer to a school that will.

rude demand On behalf of University of Miami basketball star Isaiah Wong, last week he offered a rare, unflattering glimpse into the way elite college sports have been transformed by rights athletes to make money through endorsements.

Teammates compare contracts. The financial backers of the players exchange barbs. Coaches and administrators struggle to keep their rosters full – and players happy – without breaking the rules.

If Wong’s agent doesn’t go beyond what’s technically permissible — players can’t seek pay for a promise to play at a particular school — then firmly plant his foot on the line, according to labor experts.

“We are moving rapidly toward full-market professionalism for players in the NCAA,” said Michael LeRoy, professor of labor law at the University of Illinois. “It’s very clear that it’s not really about endorsements, it’s about paying men for their performance.”

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

The NCAA left in place only loosely defined guidelines: Deals cannot be used to entice recruits or as a form of pay-to-play contracts.

Wong, who apparently chose to stay in Miami, Experts said he certainly wasn’t the first player to have an actor place an order based on a player’s perceived market value, and he wouldn’t be the last.

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

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

Trades can be worth a few hundred dollars; Some are said to be over a million dollars. Football players earn the most, followed by women’s and men’s basketball players, according to Opendorse.. Endorsements can be found widely, even in seemingly low-key sports like golf, rowing, and hockey.

So far, only single players have wanted the big deals, but that could change. LeRoy, a professor of labor law, wondered what would happen if players on the same basketball team made a joint application for a more generous support pay, putting the program in trouble.

It’s easy for a soccer team to recover if the players seeking better endorsements move to other schools because the rosters are larger than those of basketball. But keeping everyone happy is a challenge for coaches.

“All 85 players are your roster and free agents each year,” said Perry. “This is a professional model. It is not a team model anymore.”

TCU football coach Sonny Dykes said recruiters routinely ask about endorsement 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 and can’t do,’ said Dykes. “What worries me is that someone makes a promise to a child and doesn’t keep it. We have no control over that.”

In many cases, the people to contact are those who run so-called rallies and sports marketing agencies that sprang up to support specific schools and facilitate deals between athletes and businesses such as apparel companies, energy drink companies, car dealers and restaurants.

In Texas, one group pays $50,000 annually to individual offensive entrepreneurs to work in support of community charities, such as personal appearances, promotions or representation. At the University of Oregon, billionaire founder, Phil Knight, is part of a group that helps duck athletes arrange deals.

Nigel Buck is a men’s basketball player who moved to Miami from Kansas State, Signed with LifeWallet software company For $800,000, plus two years of car use. UConn basketball player Paige Bakers was last year the first college athlete to sign a deal to represent Gatorade.

The vast majority of sports managers are concerned That groups improperly use endorsement contracts to recruit players from high schools or other colleges, according to a survey released Wednesday by LEAD1, the 130 school athletic directors association in its soccer division.

“This is a transformative period in college sports and our survey results show that (sports directors) are very concerned with a number of key issues,” said Tom McMillen, President of LEAD1.

The NCAA, the governing body for college sports, has taken a mostly laissez-faire approach since allowing endorsement deals, and more than two dozen states have laws permitting endorsement deals. Most state laws include a prohibition on paying to play.

But while cases like Wong’s illustrate how quickly college sports are changing, there is new pressure to study this issue. On Thursday, commissioners of the Southeastern Conference and Pac-12, two of the richest leagues in college sports, were scheduled to meet with lawmakers. in Washington to lobby for certain federal regulations, which could include a potential ban on the use of endorsement contracts as recruiting solicitations and pay-to-play deals.

Associations, schools, and some coaches worry that the new free-for-all competitive balance is disrupting the rosters and pushing more control of athletic programs to outside powers.

What has surprised many is how quickly the flow of collegiate groups and wealthy people collaborating with major colleges to raise and make millions of dollars. In front of the athletes.

“No one expected these groups to form a year ago,” Leroy said. “It shows us how the whole system has gotten out of hand. It has become a way for schools to find third-party motivation for their athletic talent.”

Even financial backers can be surprised when an athlete decides that money isn’t big enough, or when one of his teammates becomes financially competitive.

Some deals push the boundaries and make it seem as though players are simply getting paid to play, rather than compensating them at market rates for endorsements, said Mitt Winter, a sports law and business attorney in Kansas City, Missouri.

“It could be argued that these deals violate NCAA rules and sometimes state laws,” Winter said. “That’s kind of the big question: Will the NCAA ever start investigating some of these deals?”

Some point to a future of collective bargaining between athletes and schools. This means that schools treat athletes like employees, which they have resisted.

Last September, the National Labor Relations Board’s chief attorney said in a memo that college athletes should be treated as employees of their schools. This created a potential avenue for athletes to join unions or compromise working conditions.

Collective bargaining requires some flexibility and creative thinking by schools and conferences. It could also allow them to bring their institutional strength into negotiations with athletes, who may have competing interests, such as gender equality and different health and safety needs across multiple sports.

“It will be a nervous moment for the teams and the leagues. They have no experience with it, and their TV contracts will be unstable,” Leroy said. “But eventually, they will be able to get a stable solution to their work problems.”


Contributing AP College football writer Ralph Russo.


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