Miami’s Wong Shows College Sports Approaching Free Market

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

The brazen demand made on behalf of University of Miami basketball star Isaiah Wong last week provided a rare and pure glimpse into how elite college sports have been transformed by student-athletes’ rights to earn money through endorsements. .

Teammates are comparing contracts. Player backers are trading barbs. And coaches and administrators are struggling to keep their rosters full – and players happy – without running afoul of the rules.

If Wong’s agent hasn’t technically crossed the line of what’s permissible — players can’t ask for payment simply in exchange for a promise to play at a specific school — then he’s firmly put his foot on the line, according to labor experts.

“We are rapidly moving towards professionalization at full market pace for these NCAA players,” said Michael LeRoy, professor of employment law at the University of Illinois. “It’s very clear that it’s not about endorsements, it’s about paying guys for their performance.”

Until recently, sponsorship deals – or any compensation other than scholarships – were strictly prohibited for college athletes. Paying students was seen as a threat to the ideal of amateur sport. But the legal challenges of athletes looking to reap some of the billions of dollars schools were making from the sport’s forcible change. In 2019, California became the first state to pass a law allowing athletes to earn money from endorsements, autographs and other activities, and in July 2021, the NCAA lifted its decades-old ban.

The NCAA left only vaguely defined guidelines in place: the agreements could not be used to attract recruits or as a form of pay-for-play contracts.

Wong, who apparently chose to stay in Miami, was certainly not the first player to have a representative make a demand based on a player’s perceived market value, and he won’t be the last, experts said.

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

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

The deals may be worth only a few hundred dollars; some reportedly top $1 million. Soccer players earn the most, followed by women’s and men’s basketball players, according to Opendorse. Approvals can be found everywhere, even in seemingly low-profile sports like golf, rowing, and hockey.

So far, it’s only been individual players that have gotten big deals, but that could change. LeRoy, the labor law professor, wondered what would happen if players on the same basketball team made a joint demand for more generous sponsorship payments, putting a program in a dead end.

It’s easier for a football team to bounce back if players looking for better sponsorships are transferred to other schools because the rosters are longer than in basketball. But keeping everyone happy is a challenge for coaches.

“All 85 players are his roster and free agents every year,” Berry said. “This is a professional model. He is no longer a university model.”

TCU football coach Sonny Dykes said recruits often ask about sponsorship deals.

“Basically, all we can do is run a number and say, ‘Hey, you can talk to this guy, and he’ll tell you what we can and can’t do.’ It really is that simple,” Dykes said. “The concern for 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 call are those who run the so-called collectives, sports marketing agencies that have sprung up to support specific schools and facilitate business between their athletes and companies such as apparel companies, energy drink companies, car dealerships, and restaurants. .

In Texas, a group is handing out $50,000 a year to individual offensive linemen for work supporting community charities, such as personal appearances, promotions or representation. At the University of Oregon, billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight is part of the group helping Ducks athletes close deals.

Nigel Pack, a men’s basketball player who transferred to Miami from Kansas State, signed with software company LifeWallet for $800.00 plus the use of a car for two years. UConn basketball player Paige Bueckers last year was the first college athlete to sign a contract to represent Gatorade.

The vast majority of sporting directors fear that collectives are misusing sponsorship contracts to recruit players from high schools or other colleges, according to a survey released Wednesday by LEAD1, an association of sporting directors from the 130 schools in the country. Football Bowl Subdivision.

“This is a period of transformation in college sports and the results of our survey illustrate that (sports directors) are extremely concerned about a number of key issues,” said LEAD1 President Tom McMillen.

The NCAA, the governing body for college sports, has taken a predominantly direct approach since allowing sponsorship deals, and more than two dozen states have laws that allow sponsorship deals. Most state laws include a ban on pay-for-play.

But as cases like Wong’s illustrate how quickly college sports are changing, there is new pressure to study the subject. On Thursday, commissioners from the Southeast Conference and Pac-12, two of college sport’s richest leagues, were due to meet with lawmakers in Washington to lobby for some federal regulations, which could include potential bans on the use of sponsorship as an incentive to recruit. and pay-for-play offers.

Leagues, schools and some coaches fear that the new MMA will upend the competitive balance, disrupting lineups and pushing more control over athletic programs to outside forces.

What took many by surprise is how quickly well-heeled collectives and wealthy individuals aligned with top colleges came in to raise and swing millions of dollars in front of athletes.

“No one anticipated the formation of these collectives a year ago,” LeRoy said. “It shows us how the whole system is out of control. It became a way for schools to find a third-party payer for their athletic talent.”

Even funders can be caught off guard when an athlete decides the money isn’t big enough, or when a teammate might become a financial rival.

Mit Winter, a business and sports law attorney in Kansas City, Missouri, said some deals are pushing the envelope and making it look like players are simply being paid to play, rather than being compensated at market rates for endorsements.

“Arguably, these agreements are violating NCAA rules and sometimes even state laws,” Winter said. “That’s the big question: is the NCAA going to start looking into some of these deals?”

Some point to a future of collective bargaining between athletes and schools. This would mean that schools treated athletes more like employees, which they resisted.

Last September, the National Labor Relations Board’s top attorney said in a memo that college athletes should be treated as employees of their schools. This established a potential avenue for athletes to unionize or negotiate working conditions.

Collective bargaining would require some flexibility and creative thinking on the part of schools and conferences. It could also allow them to bring their institutional power into negotiations with athletes, who may have conflicting interests, such as gender equality and different health and safety needs across various sports.

“It would be a nervous time for teams and leagues. They have no experience with this and their TV contracts would be uncertain,” LeRoy said. “But at the end of the day, they would be able to get a stable solution to their labor problems.”


AP college football writer Ralph Russo contributed.


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