College sports leaders must be ready to adapt in changing landscape

Not too long ago, any conversation about college athletes earning money off of their talents was met with a quickly slammed door.

College sports leaders are now facing what seems inevitable — and cracking the door open to possibilities. They would be wise to understand they need to adapt in this quickly changing sports landscape.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said Tuesday, while attending the Big Ten meetings in Rosemont, Ill., that college sports leaders need to delve deeper into potential repercussions, but he senses growing acceptance among colleagues of the idea athletes can make money off of their names, images and likenesses.

"The name/image/likeness idea has a lot of attraction to many of us," Whitman said. "Like most things, the devil is in the details and understanding how we can implement that in a way that minimizes opportunity for abuse. I'll be curious to see, as we move forward, (how) we navigate that with some guidance, as we expect, in the courts. I don't know that there are a lot of us who are philosophically opposed to the idea."

Some Big Ten representatives said they were driving to conference headquarters when news broke Monday of the Supreme Court ruling that struck down a federal law barring sports gambling in most states. They've had a few weeks to ruminate on the findings of the Commission on College Basketball, headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Whitman said of the gambling issue, "We recognize that this is a train that is starting to roll."

And it's not stopping.

"College athletics has been in a pretty steady state of evolution and change in the last five years, if not 10 years," Whitman said. "I expect that evolution will continue over the next five to 10 years. We need to be in position to remain abreast of those changes and anticipate them where we can.

"It's important to continue the vitality of college sports, that we have flexibility — what I call institutional agility, the ability to adapt and change based on the circumstances around us."

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour recently told of players receiving endorsement deals: "I do think it's a viable possibility, a viable alternative. But all the questions are out there that aren't answered."

Rice, after a bland announcement in April of the commission's report, told USA Today last week that while court cases need to be resolved first, "We believe that students ought to be able to benefit from name, image and likeness, but you can't decide a program until you know the legal parameters."

Most at the Big Ten meetings didn't sound ready to fully endorse these ideas.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said he is mulling his stance. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh recently floated the idea, according to ESPN, of deferred compensation for players, including the idea of using money or stock from the Amazon series that chronicled the Wolverines' season. Harbaugh has said he is against directly paying players because of tax concerns.

"I love the collegiate model," Manuel said. "I think we invest significantly in educational opportunities (for athletes). ... I'm not a proponent and/or an opponent at this present time for any one thing. It's something we should continue to look at.

"But I do not like the idea that students who participate in athletics are employees. ... We're trying to win, but we want to educate young people to go into the world to be successful."

But who's to say both aren't possible — athletes earning market value off their names, images and likenesses and athletes graduating?

A lot is changing in college sports — and its leaders need to be ready to adapt.

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