Image from: https://wfuv.org/content/pulse-fordham-athletics
Last June, the NCAA adopted a new, interim name, image and likeness (NIL) policy, which has given students-athletes the ability to earn money from their public presence. As such, my Instagram feed has been recently flooded with ads promoted by student-athletes, from national brands like Timberland and Bojangles to smaller businesses such as a local real estate agency. While this provides a great opportunity for athletes to learn personal finance and supplement scholarships, gaps in the interim policy present questions about who controls intellectual property, the integrity of college athletics, and the purpose of American education.
Though NCAA athletes are now allowed to make money from their own NIL, the value of these are mostly in relation to the brand of their college or university, which is restricted because of university trademarks of logos, symbols, and names. Regularly, the NCAA makes over $800 million from television and marketing rights fees, not including conference and school level deals in a nearly $20 billion dollar industry, achieved entirely through reflecting and imaging the brand of the NCAA’s various teams on the bodies of NCAA athletes. A letter from student-athletes at ACC schools to congress members has advocated for a uniform federal NIL policy that “allow[s] for group licensing agreements at the discretion of their [student-athlete’s] respective college or university that would permit student-athletes to market themselves while wearing or being associated with university trademarks.” The letter advocates for a cautious expansion of NIL rights, with the primary goal being “empowering and enabling student-athletes.”
Fordham’s 2017 University self-study provides a good backdrop from which to approach how to do this: “We remain vigilant to ensure that we maintain our institutional priorities and that, above all things, Fordham’s athletic program always serves larger educational goals and never becomes an end in itself. Both students and alumni, families and coaches, friends and donors, sometimes need to be reminded that the goals of athletics must always be subordinated to our mission ideals that focus on Cura Personalis, the development of the whole student, and Women and Men for and with others.” Fordham’s long history of athletic success, from Super Bowl championship trophy namesake Vince Lombardi to two-time Olympic gold-medalist Tom Courtney, is within a context of forming the whole person. Though expressed on our campus with a particularly Jesuit lens and vocabulary, the idea that a broad education advances the person and humanity in a way that is more than the quantifiable sum of its parts is the foundation of the liberal arts pedagogy that sets American colleges and universities apart and ahead. It is why American colleges have such an emphasis on education through leadership, extracurricular experiences, and student life. This education occurs inside and outside the classroom, including on our athletic teams.
A major worry about changes in NIL policy and other developments in collegiate athletics is that it will undermine the authentic amateurism that grounds athletics within a University community and makes athletics serve the “larger educational goals” mentioned in the Fordham self-study. In many cases, the massiveness of the collegiate athletics industry, as mentioned above, has denied this experience for the tiny upper echelon of athlete-students. Even within Division 1 athletics, there is a massive difference in experience and policy needs for Ohio State’s starting quarterback and Fordham’s back of the pack track runners (me!). For the vast majority of athletes the NCAA serves, across divisions, the monetary benefit of NIL will be little in comparison to the lifetime value of a college degree. As such, NIL legislation must be approached in a way that ensures protection and expansion of the great opportunities athletics provides to student-athletes.