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Johnny Manziel and the Olympic Model

When the Summer of Johnny Football was about Johnny Manziel’s personal behavior, talk of lasting implications was mostly confined to self-righteous columns about “kids these days”. Now that possible NCAA violations have been added to the mix, those questions are coming thick and fast. Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel sees the natural evolution to the “open market”, while his colleague Pat Forde lists the parade of horribles that could come with simply ripping Bylaw 12 out of the Division I Manual. Rachel Bachmann raises the issue of whether Manziel’s singular place in college football makes him the tipping point for change, while SI’s Michael Rosenberg says Manziel is not the leader the pay-for-play movement needs.

Like most debates, everyone is correct on some points and everyone is incorrect on others.

“Amateurism” and “professionalism” are often presented as a binary choice. Either the NCAA has to prohibit everything or allow anything. The most subtlety you often see is the distinction between payment directly from the school vs. outside incoming (a.k.a. the “Olympic Model”). And rarely, you will see how stipends and cost-of-attendance scholarships are separated from other forms of payment.

But as critics of the amateurism bylaws point out, there are a lot of them. 17 pages in the 2012-13 Division I Manual. Here is a listing of just the big topics:

–   General Regulations

–   Professional Teams

–   Agents

–   Employment

–   Promotional Activities

–   Donations

Each of those is broken down into smaller subsections, some with many exceptions to the basic rule. Many rules are actually two rules: one for enrolled student-athletes and another for prospects. Not to mention the other areas of the Manual affected by changes to the amateurism rules.

Both Wetzel and Forde are correct in this case. Amateurism rules, especially those concerning athletes’ use of their name and likeness, the relationship with agents and similar individuals, and how athletes explore and ultimately choose a professional career are long overdue for a serious overhaul. But simply eliminating the amateurism rules exposes an ever younger and less sophisticated group of athletes to a large group of people who may not have their best interests are heart. No one is more of a poster child for this than Gale Agbossumonde.

The TL;DR on “Boss” as he is known is that coming out of the IMG Academy, he was one of the brightest prospects in American soccer. But after a couple tryouts abroad and not being satisfied with the money being offered by MLS, Boss signed a contract with the Brazilian company Traffic Sports. In exchange for guaranteed income, Traffic had total control of Boss’s career, which was promptly ruined over the next three years.

It takes little imagination to see how such a scheme would work with college athletes. An agent agrees to pay an athlete guaranteed income while in college in exchange for control of the athlete’s image and marketing rights. The agent makes money off getting the athlete endorsement deals, the athlete gets a steady paycheck, everyone is happy. Until the agent wants to cash in on the athlete and either threatens to cut the athlete off or points to a clause that turns that income into a loan unless the athlete agrees to enter the professional ranks.

Pointing out the nightmares of third-party ownership and how it would work in college is not to suggest deregulating amateurism cannot be done. It simply means that deleting rules and telling athletes to fend for themselves in an unregulated free market is not the answer. While the doctrine of in loco parentis is slowly being eroded, it would be an abdication of responsibility for publicly-funded educational institutions to simply throw athletes to the wolves and hope it turns out ok.

So those 17 pages of amateurism rules should not be thought off as a obstacle, but as an opportunity. Each of those rules covers a specific type of behavior. Each of those rules can be amended or relaxed, not just deleted. New ones can be added. Reducing the sheer number of NCAA rules is a nice goal. But if a completely fair and well-regulated market for athletes to profit without constantly being ripped off is possible, but takes 400 pages of amateurism rules, that seems like a small cost to pay for a better system.

The NCAA Division I Manual is the size it is because, contrary to popular belief, it rarely deals in absolutes, even in the amateurism rules. Hashing out a compromise, even if the process is long and painful, is one of the core competencies of the NCAA. Handling different situations differently is another that the NCAA uses to explain most of its decisions and policies.

If boosters overpaying for autographs is a problem, prohibit booster involvement or set a standard rate. If some agents are good and some agents are bad, have an agent registry with dedicated rules and staff. If interference with academics is the fear, then prohibit athletes from missing class or move as much commercial activity to the summer as possible.

The double-edged sword for the NCAA is the expectation that any change will not be perfect right off the bat. This is good for the NCAA in that iterating and tweaking are likely to produce a better result. The downside is that the NCAA may have forfeited or lost the right get better rather than fix itself completely in one fell swoop. But if the NCAA were seriously considering changes to the amateurism rules, that would be as good a reason as any to give the association another chance to improve even if it is just the first step toward a complete solution.

That brings us back to Johnny Manziel and his signature. Autographs and memorabilia seem like the perfect place to start with amateurism deregulation. There is already an open market that dictates the value of these items, meaning less chance for an athlete to be ripped off. There is actual work or value that athletes have to put in, either by signing hundreds of items or giving up memorabilia they earned. Any number of other ideas can be tried as well, like limits on missed class time or the involvement of agents, boosters, and/or the institution.

Just because professionalization or commercialization is a slippery slope does not mean we cannot reshape the hillside to slow down or stop the descent. There is a vast and varied middle ground between complete professionalization and rigid amateurism. The only question now is whether college athletics will start to carefully make its way down that slope, or get shoved and hope it stops rolling before flying off a cliff.

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