As Charlie Baker takes over as NCAA president, he brings a different way of thinking about one of the more important and most polarizing issues in college athletics: Regulating how college athletes monetize their fame.
To Baker, athletes such as quarterback recruit Jaden Rashada and Miami basketball players Hanna and Haley Cavinder are consumers who need help in a burgeoning name, image and likeness market. That market currently lacks transparency and uniformity, and the athletes would benefit from legal protections to ward off unqualified, unaccountable and even unscrupulous actors.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Baker paraphrased a quote he read recently from an athletic director: "The only thing that’s true about NIL is everybody’s lying, and whatever you hear about it, basically, don’t believe it.”
“And I think that creates enormous challenges for student-athletes and for families," Baker said.
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Baker, the former governor of Massachusetts, was hired in December and starts the job officially Wednesday. Getting a handle on NIL compensation is at the top of his to-do-list as it has roiled the NCAA's vast membership of 1,100 schools like few other issues. Like his predecessor, Mark Emmert, Baker says the NCAA needs help from Congress in the form of a federal law to govern NIL.
There had been plenty of talk and some posturing by politicians in Washington about the state of college sports before the NCAA lifted its ban on third parties paying athletes for NIL endorsements on July 1, 2021.
Since then, there has been no significant movement on a federal bill. Meanwhile, more than 30 states have passed NIL laws, creating a patchwork of rules and regulations for schools that are competing and recruiting against one another.
“I hope Charlie Baker brings a fresh approach to the NCAA and advises that instead of lobbying Congress, the NCAA and its member colleges should work directly with the athletes to ensure they are fairly compensated and get the health, safety, and academic protections they deserve,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who has been one of the most vocal and active lawmakers in Washington, pushing college sports reform. "The NCAA doesn’t need permission from the federal government to do the right thing,”
The NCAA enacted an interim NIL policy that leaned into general rules against pay-for-play and recruiting inducements, but lacked detail. With schools allowed only minimal involvement in their athletes' deals, the NCAA's inaction created a void that has been filled by boosters, lawyers and fledgling agents.
Rashada, the blue chip quarterback from California, had a potential multimillion-dollar deal with a NIL collective run by Florida boosters fall through that led to him being released from a letter of intent by the school. He is now going to play at Arizona State.
The first school the NCAA has punished for NIL-related violations is Miami, which received a year of probation because coach Katie Meier inadvertently helped arrange impermissible contact between booster John Ruiz and the Cavinder twins. Haley and Hanna Cavinder, top players as well as social media stars, transferred to Miami from Fresno State after last season.
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Baker said 19 months of NIL in its current state has helped reveal the pitfalls.
“I think for the NCAA,, until you actually had NIL, it would be hard to know what it was going to look like," Baker said. "Now we have it and the question becomes, should there be an attempt to make this more visible, more transparent, more — the word I guess I’m really looking for is easier for kids, student-athletes, families to understand what’s real and what’s not.”
Dan Lust, a sports law attorney and professor at New York University Law School, said Baker's framing of NIL regulation as consumer protection for the athletes is a new approach.
“I’d say it’s a it’s a unique spin to what otherwise was a stale amateurism argument that they needed to protect the student-athletes to enable them to pursue an education,” Lust said. “But now they’ve seemingly pivoted that argument to say we need to protect the student-athletes in order to allow them to earn compensation, absent predatory agents and boosters that might otherwise get them in trouble.”
Baker laid out priorities for his first 100 days in office, including meeting with every conference commissioner at all three divisions of NCAA athletics. The NCAA's member schools have some 500,000 athletes competing in nearly 100 conferences.
He said he also plans to bring in an outside firm to conduct a “state of the business” review for the association to assess its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
The courts have presented a serious threat to the NCAA for years, and that only increased after the 2021 unanimous Supreme Court ruling in an antitrust case against the association. Two active cases, including one in Pennsylvania, could pave the way for college athletes to be considered employees of their schools.
Baker said the fundamental challenge college sports faces is creating a system that allows what he called “revenue-positive” sports programs — big money-makers such as major college football and basketball — to operate differently from the rest of the enterprise.
“At the same time, recognize and understand that for the vast majority of the schools and the kids there’s an investment here being made by their schools, and by their supporters in these programs,” Baker said. “And they’re doing it because they think it’s an important part of the student-development process, and I just don’t want that to get lost.”