NCAA board approves athlete compensation for image, likeness

In this April 19 photo, an athlete stands near an NCAA logo during a softball game in Beaumont, Texas. The NCAA is poised to take a significant step toward allowing college athletes to earn money without violating amateurism rules.

So you’re a big-time college football fan and plan to watch today’s action on TV?

Tell us, who’s the long-snapper on Louisiana State’s top-ranked football team? That player won’t feature as prominently as the quarterback or receiver in the video game that’s likely to come in the wake of an NCAA decision that allows college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness.

The logic behind this move is understandable. College athletes are the unpaid labor in a multimillion-dollar empire that feeds the budgets of universities, TV networks, advertisers and shoe companies.

There’s always been something unseemly about this, even with many of these players getting a free college education. That is a benefit of tremendous value eluding those who aren’t as athletically gifted.

But the groundswell to end the charade of noble amateurism combined with obscene profit-making has been building for years. This year, California passed a law that allows college athletes in that state to profit from their image and likeness. The NCAA’s hands were tied, though the organization remains opposed to any direct payment or stipend for participation in college athletics.

The result is a half measure that creates a new imbalance, this time between elite athletes in high-profile sports and everyone else. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah gave voice to flaws in the NCAA’s proposal when he described a campus with “a couple of athletes driving around in Ferraris while everyone else is having a hard time making ends meet.”

These changes could make sense in small ways, like allowing a tennis player to more easily make money by giving private lessons. But the big money associated with an athlete’s image is likely to go to players who participate in big-revenue sports like football or basketball or compete for large, Division I universities in power conferences.

If you’re on the lacrosse team or any sport at a smaller university like Missouri Western or Northwest Missouri State, good luck to you. The best thing about the NCAA’s new policy, which needs to be fleshed out, is that it demonstrates a nod to reality and a flexibility that’s often lacking from such a monolithic institution.

The downside is the potential for big-time programs to get bigger while everyone else fights for scraps. The NCAA still will face the dilemma of lifting up all athletes while also promoting the academic reason for being at a university in the first place.

Here’s a modest proposal toward that end: Put the money associated with an athlete’s image into a bank account, but don’t cut the check until after the student-athlete picks up a degree at graduation.