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After years of procrastination, NCAA's Mark Emmert says athletes should be able to make money starting in 2021

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Is the NCAA finally ready to change its rules that prevent college athletes from getting endorsements?

As states across the country are set to implement laws this summer allowing college athletes to make money off their image rights, NCAA president Mark Emmert told the New York Times on Friday that he wants the governing body to officially allow all athletes to make sponsor and endorsement money before those various state laws take effect.

From the Times:

In an interview with The New York Times on Friday, the N.C.A.A.’s president, Mark Emmert, said he would recommend that college sports’ governing bodies approve new rules “before, or as close to, July 1,” when the new laws are scheduled to go into effect in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and New Mexico. 

A rule change this summer going into immediate effect would mean that college athletes across the country — including those in states where these laws haven't gone into effect — would be able to take endorsement and sponsorship money. 

This new apparent rush to approve new rules comes as the NCAA has delayed updating its archaic rules for years. The governing body was only pushed to act once California kicked off the state lawmaking process and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that would allow athletes to make money starting in 2023.

The NCAA attempted to call California's law "unconstitutional" in the fall of 2019. Months later — and as other states followed California's lead — the NCAA said it would start working to update its rules to allow players to make money off their own names. Now, as other states implemented laws that go into effect years before California's, the NCAA is scrambling to change its rules to avoid a massive legal headache.

NCAA delayed a January vote on new rules

While the NCAA has been signaling its intent to change its rules regarding athlete rights, it has publicly provided lots of generalities and few specifics about what the rule changes would look like.

It's also been counting on the federal government to step in and give a huge helping hand. The NCAA has lobbied Congress to set a federal framework for updated name, image and likeness rules. The federal law would have two significant benefits for the NCAA: It would mean that the NCAA didn't have to navigate myriad state laws and it would place a lot of the onus for making the new rules on legislators and not NCAA members.

“The NCAA and its members remain committed to providing a path for student-athletes to benefit from name, image and likeness opportunities,” the NCAA Board of Governors said in an April statement. “As we have previously noted, we recognize the importance of taking swift, appropriate action to modernize our rules. We also must collaborate with Congress to create a legal and legislative framework at the federal level to support name, image and likeness within the context of higher education. With several state laws taking effect this summer, we will continue efforts to adopt expanded name, image and likeness opportunities as soon as advisable.”

The NCAA also delayed a vote on new NIL rules in January. It made the announcement that the vote was delayed on the day of the College Football Playoff's national championship game. That delay was reportedly — at least in part — due to pressure from the Justice Department. The department warned the NCAA that its new rules would have to comply with federal anti-trust rules and that it could be violation of anti-trust laws. 

That pressure came from a Justice Department run by the former presidential administration. The announcement that the vote was delayed came nine days before President Joe Biden took office. Justice Department priorities often change when presidential administrations do. 

NCAA supports bipartisan NIL bill in Congress

The NCAA has signaled its support for a bill that's currently in the United States House. A day before it said it remained committed to changing NIL rules at an undetermined date in the future, the NCAA said it supported a bill sponsored by Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver (D-Mo) and Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio). 

“We value the bipartisan nature of U.S. Reps. Gonzalez and Cleaver to again collaborate across party lines and sponsor legislation to support student-athletes. Their House bill will strengthen the college athlete experience and support the NCAA and its members to modernize name, image and likeness rules but not pay student-athletes or turn them into employees of their college or university. Moreover, the Gonzalez-Cleaver legislation would create a legal and legislative framework to preserve and enhance the mission of college sports: that students can play the sport they love and earn a degree – often with a full scholarship and no debt – and set themselves up for a lifetime of success. We look forward to continuing to work with both lawmakers, their co-sponsors and other members of Congress on these important measures.”

The bill was first introduced in September and then reintroduced this spring. According to Gonzalez’s website, the bill would allow athletes to make money off their images via contracts negotiated by agents. It would also prevent schools from directly compensating players for their image rights and “protects the recruitment process.”

Power Five commissioners made NIL recommendations to Congress in May of 2020. Among those recommendations was a provision requesting that incoming freshman have to complete a semester at school before being eligible to make money off their image rights. That provision would have meant that a player like Zion Williamson wouldn't have been able to make any endorsement or sponsorship money at Duke until the December of his only season at the school. 

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