The winds of change are sweeping through college sports. Just a day after longtime Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth formally announced his retirement effective in August of this year, representing a major change for Gonzaga at the local level, Mark Few flew out to Washington D.C. to share his thoughts with the Senate Commerce Committee on the NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rights debate that has garnered the attention of state and federal legislative bodies and raised the possibility of a national law related to it—a prospective change that could have significant ramifications across collegiate athletics.
Why was Mark Few speaking at a Senate Committee hearing?
So how did Mark Few end up speaking before a Congressional Committee on a Wednesday in June? To answer that, we’ll have to rewind a little bit.
If you’re unfamiliar with the NIL conversation, it stems from the long-running debate regarding compensation for NCAA student-athletes. Rather than bestowing salaries upon student-athletes to play for your favorite school, and removing the guise of “amateurism” in its entirety, reforming the restrictions on student-athletes’ ability to commercialize their name, image, and likeness has gained significant momentum over the last few years as a compromise that allows them make some money based on the strength of their popularity and personal brand without forfeiting their NCAA eligibility or turning them into full-fledged employees of their schools.
Permitting Giving student-athletes their commercial NIL rights back would open up opportunities for them to receive pay to make appearances at local events or in commercials on tv/radio, sign autographs for money, post ads on their social media (a method of income that their fellow college-attending social influencers who are not student-athletes are eligible to earn), run for-profit sports camps, or even make a little side cash by doing social media shoutouts on Cameo. The possibilities would only be limited by a marketing firm’s imagination.
The NCAA has sought to prevent student-athletes from earning this type of compensation (any compensation, actually,) since its inception. The cynical among us might even say it is the NCAA’s sole mission. The NCAA crafted the term “student-athlete” to be deliberately ambiguous. Collegiate athletes cannot truly be considered students at play, thus mitigating their extensive athletic obligations. Nor are they just athletes playing for a college or university, which implies they are professionals. That they are student-athletes means they do not have to be compensated—ever—for anything more than the cost of their studies. The NCAA has taken its signature “student-athlete” term and repeated it constantly in and out of courtrooms over the last few decades as a tool to influence judicial deference for decisions regarding its “students.”
You have to hand it to the NCAA, it established one of the world’s great business models—earning billions of dollars in revenue from a low cost workforce: its student-athletes. However, with the enormous sums of revenue flowing into intercollegiate sports each year, and that workforce finding mediums to amplify its voice over the inequity of this arrangement, the fiction of the amateur student-athlete became harder to maintain.
Then, in 2009, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Northern District of California on behalf of former student-athletes (and was eventually consolidated with other similar lawsuits) alleging that the NCAA violated Antitrust laws by illegally depriving student-athletes from receiving any compensation for the use of their NIL in numerous revenue-generating formats. As (a small) part of its defense, the NCAA pointed to the “Student-Athlete Statement” which the NCAA Constitution required student-athletes to sign in order to be eligible to play in which the student-athlete authorized the NCAA (or a third-party such as a licensing partner acting on behalf of the NCAA) to use their name or picture for promotional purposes (thus why I prefer to say the NCAA is giving student-athletes their NIL rights back). O’Bannon ultimately won his case in 2014, and in the wake of that case’s appeal and its progeny of suits challenging other restrictions implemented by the NCAA the NIL reform movement was born.
By 2019, the State of California passed a law that prohibited schools in that state from punishing student-athletes who accepted endorsement money while they were still enrolled. That law will go into effect in January 2023. Naturally, the NCAA criticized that piece of legislation and labeled it an “existential threat” to amateur intercollegiate athletics. Critics of NIL reform point to it as simply another piece of the Unperturbed by the NCAA’s bluster, several other states soon followed suit and passed their own versions of an NIL law with Alabama’s bill the first to go into effect in a few weeks on July 1.
As you can imagine, 18 different variations on NIL rights for student-athletes based on the state where a school is located presents its own set of problems. Faced with the possibility of fragmented state-by-state NIL laws benefitting some institutions while leaving others behind, there has been a strong push—by those who can read the room and see what’s coming on the horizon—for a federal law that will establish a nationwide standard and preempt each state’s separate bill.
So that is how Mark Few ended up on C-SPAN on a Wednesday morning (perhaps related, Washington’s own Senator Maria Cantwell chairs the Commerce Committee and has been one of the leading voices in negotiating a national NIL law) instead of knee-deep in a river somewhere looking for his next big catch, though they don’t get much bigger than Chet Holmgren. Always true to himself, Few showed up without a tie.
Mark Few refuses to wear a tie, even before a Senate committee. What a boss. https://t.co/Wgf5SP0KLF— Keith Ybanez (@slipperyky) June 9, 2021
Okay, so what is Mark Few’s position?
It turns out that Mark Few is decidedly pro-student athlete when it comes to NIL rights and student-athlete wellbeing in general.
Few opened his comments to the Committee by declaring that “we are at a critical juncture in college athletics and it really isn’t an exaggeration to say the future of college sports is in jeopardy.” He went on to characterize NIL reform as a change that is “long, long overdue” and expressed his embarrassment that it remains an issue that still needs to be resolved today.
Few was emphatic that “all athletes deserve to use their own name, image or likeness in commercial endorsements and on social media” and then removed any further doubt on where he stood by stating “I am very much in favor of them profiting as much as they can from this” and that “this absolutely needs to happen right now.”
Some have suggested that even if student-athletes recover their NIL rights, there should be guardrails or limits on the amount of money they could earn, but Few was not in favor of that. “We don’t need an artificial cap on what a player’s value is for NIL, we should rely on fair market value.” However, he did call for “parameters to preserve the collegiate model and protect the recruiting environment” which segued to the purpose of his visit to Capitol Hill—asking Congress to help by implementing a national and consistent standard for NIL rights through legislation.
Few described the current situation as a problem that the NCAA couldn’t fix. I have absolutely zero faith in the NCAA getting things right, but I’m also not entirely sure that sentiment is true. After all, it was the NCAA that implemented the restrictions in the first place, so you would have to imagine they have the authority to undo their own work. But perhaps at this point the situation is too far gone for the NCAA to come up with a workable solution, or it simply doesn’t want to expend the brain energy to do so. At any rate, with many states taking matters into their own hands, the toothpaste is out of the tube at this point.
To be clear, Few has no desire to see the entire collegiate structure torn down. He referenced the positive experiences garnered from collegiate athletics which he said was worth “supporting and preserving,” while highlighting the access to higher education that participation in sports provides. “Let’s find a solution that will empower, educate, and provide an opportunity for these students to capitalize on their own NIL without compromising what makes attending college and playing college sports a special and transformational experience.”
Few didn’t stop there, however, as he also advocated for student-athletes at all schools to continue to receive medical insurance and/or assistance to cover out-of-pocket health expenses for two years after their collegiate playing days are over. He also called for schools to provide scholarships and help cover the costs for student-athletes to finish their degree if they want to do so after completing their professional playing careers, which is already being done at Gonzaga.
It wasn't just NIL Few came out in support of. He also says he supports schools covering healthcare costs for SA's post graduation and schools covering degree costs if SA's want to return to complete their degree.— Brenna Greene (@BrennaGreene_) June 9, 2021
"The fact that we do this at Gonzaga, we just take for granted." pic.twitter.com/j6a3hp8lt1
From his comments it is readily apparent just how much Few cares about the holistic well-being of his student-athletes—not just during the time when they’re wearing a Gonzaga jersey, but long after as well. It’s time for the NCAA to follow his lead.