Ole Miss players warmup before their game Alabama in Oxford Saturday, September 15, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

First thing first: This is not going to be the definitive essay on the name, image and likeness issue facing the big business of college athletics these days. It doesn’t claim to be.

That essay does not yet exist. There are too many unknowns, too much still to be decided.

The only thing we know is this: College athletes are about to get paid — and not under the table. We have long been headed in this direction. And now we are here.

Rick Cleveland

The NCAA fought it — indeed, fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the NCAA lost 9-0, which is the courtroom version of  just how badly Millsaps football would lose to Alabama. Of course, Millsaps would never fight that battle. The NCAA was stupid enough to do so.

And that 9-0 decision begs these questions: Who thought it would be otherwise? Do you know how wrong you have to be for all nine justices on this court to agree you were wrong? These judges are split on everything under the sun and yet they agree on this point: The NCAA is not above the law. The highest court in the land essentially has ruled, unanimously, that the NCAA has long been in violation of antitrust laws.

The NCAA makes millions. The universities make millions. The coaches make millions. The TV networks make millions. Yet players, for decades, have been limited — at least above the table — to tuition, room and board in the name of “amateurism.”

It makes no sense. It never made sense. It’s about to change.

And so, you ask, how will this affect the college sports world as we know it? Will there be big winners and big losers? Will the landscape change, competition-wise?

My guess, based on half a century of following college athletics: No. Not much at all. Alabama will still be Alabama in football. Ohio State will still be Ohio State. Basketball-wise, Kentucky will still be Kentucky. Duke will be Duke and so on. 

If anything, the rich will get richer, and the poor, well, for the poor the struggle continues.

As mentioned before, there is so much to be determined. And there are so many potential rough patches that must be smoothed. Number one, you know this going to enter into the recruitment process for athletes. If there’s one thing we know about college athletics dating back to the 1930s and ‘40s, every coach and every school looks for the competitive edge in recruiting. Endorsement deals, arranged during the recruiting process, presumably would be an NCAA violation. How to police that?

Numbers wise, one of the biggest issues is this: For athletes, all this above-the-table earning will be taxable income. The government will get its share. These are 18- and 19-year-olds and 20-somethings, most of whom will have had little experience balancing a checkbook, much less dealing with taxable income. And most of those who have worked at paying jobs have had their taxes deducted from their paychecks. The universities are going to have to educate their athletes — either that, or many college athletes are going to leave with delinquent tax bills and no way to pay.

Some of these athletes are going to be paid with items other than cash — for instance, clothes, shoes, gym memberships, country club memberships, transportation, etc. All that is taxable income. The government will get its share. Someone must do the accounting.

The other huge issue I see is potential jealousies that could arise. Let’s say the star quarterback gets a huge endorsement contract, while the left tackle, who protects his blind side, gets little or nothing. How will that work out?  

It’s not as if coaching hasn’t gotten more complicated recently with the transfer portal. The NIL issues will complicate a coach’s job that much more.

But, again, big-time college coaches are paid beyond handsomely to deal with these problems. Now, the players will get paid, too. If there is a bottom line, a definitive statement about NIL at this time, it is this: It’s about time.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.