Miami’s Wong shows college sports hurtling 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.

The cheeky demand conducted on behalf of University of Miami basketball star Isaiah Wong last week provided a rare, unvarnished look at how elite collegiate sports have been transformed by athletes’ right to earn money through sponsorships.

Teammates are comparing contracts. The financial sponsors of the players are exchanging spikes. And coaches and administrators struggle to keep their rosters full, and players happy, without breaking the rules.

If Wong’s agent didn’t technically cross the line of what is permissible — players can’t seek payment simply in exchange for a promise to play at a specific school — then he planted his foot firmly in line, according to labor experts.

“We’re moving rapidly toward professionalization at the top market rate for these NCAA players,” said Michael LeRoy, an employment law professor at the University of Illinois. “It’s very clear that it’s really not about endorsements, it’s about paying guys for their performance.”

Until recently, endorsement deals, or any compensation other than scholarships, were strictly out of reach for college athletes. Paying students was seen as a threat to the ideal of amateur sports. But legal challenges from athletes seeking to reap some of the billions of dollars the schools made from forced change in sports. In 2019, California became the first state to pass a law allowing athletes to earn money from endorsements, autograph signings, and other activities, and by July 2021, the NCAA lifted its decades-old ban.

The NCAA left in place only loosely defined guidelines: The offers could not be used to attract recruits or as a form of pay-per-play contracts.

Wong, who apparently chose to stay in Miami, He surely wasn’t the first player to have a manager make a claim based on a player’s perceived market value, and he won’t be the last, experts said.

“He was 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 been paid, according to Opendorse, a firm that works with schools on player compensation matters ranging from brand building to compliance.

Deals can be worth as little as a few hundred dollars; some reportedly exceed a million dollars. Soccer players earn the most, followed by male and female basketball players, according to Opendorse. Sponsorships can be found everywhere, even in seemingly low-key sports like golf, rowing and hockey.

So far only individual players have landed big deals, but that could change. LeRoy, the labor law professor, wondered what would happen if players on the same basketball team jointly demanded a more generous sponsorship payment, putting a program in a bind.

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

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

TCU football coach Sonny Dykes said recruits 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.’ 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 the ones running the so-called collectives, sports marketing agencies that have sprung up to support specific schools and facilitate deals between their athletes and businesses like apparel companies, energy drink companies, cars and restaurants.

In Texas, one group offers $50,000 a year to individual offensive linemen to work in support of community charities, such as in-person appearances, endorsements or representation. At the University of Oregon, billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight is part of the group that helps Ducks athletes land deals.

Nigel Pack, a men’s basketball player who transferred to Miami from Kansas State, signed with software company LifeWallet for $800,000, 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.

A large majority of sporting directors worry that collectives are improperly using endorsement deals to recruit players from high schools or other colleges, according to a survey released Wednesday by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors at the 130 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“This is a period of transformation in college sports and our survey results illustrate that (athletic 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 mostly hands-off approach since allowing sponsorship deals, and more than two dozen states have laws allowing sponsorship deals. Most state laws include a ban on pay-to-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 Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12, two of the richest leagues in college sports, were scheduled to meet with lawmakers. in Washington to push for some federal regulations, which could include possible bans on the use of endorsement contracts as recruiting incentives and pay-for-play deals.

Leagues, schools and some coaches fear the new free play will upset the competitive balance, disrupt rosters and push more control over athletic programs to outside forces.

What has taken many by surprise is the speed with which wealthy groups and wealthy individuals aligned with major universities flocked to raise and hang millions of dollars. in front of the athletes.

“Nobody anticipated the formation of these collectives a year ago,” LeRoy said. “It shows us how out of control the whole system is. It has become a way for schools to find a third party to pay for their athletic talent.”

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

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

“These deals arguably violate NCAA rules and sometimes even state law,” Winter said. “That’s the big question: Will the NCAA ever start looking into some of these deals?”

Some point to a future of collective bargaining between athletes and schools. That would mean schools would treat athletes more like employees, which they have resisted.

Last September, the lead attorney for the National Labor Relations Board said in a memo that college athletes should be treated as employees of their schools. That set up a potential path 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 competing interests, such as gender equity and different health and safety needs across multiple sports.

“It would be a nervous moment for teams and leagues. They have no experience with that and their television contracts would not be liquidated,” LeRoy said. “But at the end of the day, they could get a stable solution to their work problems.”


AP college football writer Ralph Russo contributed.


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