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College athletes profiting from their images isn’t the end of the world. It’s a start.

The sky is always falling. Freshman eligibility was going to destroy college athletics. Title IX was going to bankrupt college athletics. Cost of attendance was going to commercialize college athletics.

Letting athletes capitalize on their name, image and likeness, as specified in the new “Fair Pay to Play Act” passed in California and proposed in several other states, will do all of those things and more to this quaint little billion-dollar cottage industry, depending on which sanctimonious hypocrite has your ear.

Defenders of the NCAA’s “amateur model” pretend to be concerned about the “student athletes” but what they’re really concerned about are the coaches, administrators, contractors, bowl directors and assorted and sundry hangers-on who all get their piece of the millions upon millions college sports generates while the athletes who actually do the generating get none.

The days when a scholarship was fair compensation for that are long over; not only do athletes making others rich, very few are actually allowed to be students. They’ll get their piece of the pie eventually.

This isn’t even it.

No one in college athletics is going to lose a dime of their ill-gotten lucre when the California law takes effect in 2023. There’s nothing to protect here. Some athletes might get a cut of any jerseys sold with their name or number on it, but that’s going to be a very limited number of football and basketball superstars. A few might get multi-million dollar endorsement deals. The vast majority of athletes who aren’t Zion Williamson will get very little or nothing.

But for a rower who wants to do a paid summer internship, or a diver who wants to be an Instagram influencer, or a football player who wants to make money off his jazz-flute lessons channel on YouTube, the NCAA’s silly and senseless restrictions on such outside income will finally be lifted. “Student athletes” will finally be treated like students as well as athletes.

The Olympics went this route years ago, and swimmers and gymnasts have become millionaires and it hasn’t made them any less popular. The argument that people won’t watch college athletics because the left tackle does ads for the local Honda dealership is ludicrous, rooted in the same prejudice that led snobby Brits to lionize “amateur” sports, distinguishing the sporting gentry from the working class.

The NCAA really missed the boat on this. It should have been out ahead of this long ago instead of wasting its time trying to take control of summer basketball recruiting and agent certification, meddling in areas of non-expertise the NCAA should have left to others. Former N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow once visited The News & Observer and told the group she was OK with players getting a cut of jersey sales. And that was in 2012!

Of all the many and varied issues threatening the NCAA cartel, name, image and likeness rights will be the easiest to resolve: Let the athletes control them, like any other student. It’s a stone-cold loser for the NCAA, which has absolutely nothing to gain by fighting it. Set a few reasonable boundaries, maybe, but go ahead and open the floodgates for what will almost certainly be a manageable trickle.

Instead, as always, real reform continues to be stymied by the older generation that drags out the same tired playbook: we can’t afford it, we’ll have to cut sports, we’ll have to drop down to Division III. The latter piece of nonsense came from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who was wagging that finger with one hand while pocketing a $20 million bonus with the other.

If the NCAA won’t give athletes a cut by choice, it will eventually be forced to do it on someone else’s terms, if not by the courts, then the legislatures. Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit demanding compensation for his likeness being used in video games took five years to win, but it emboldened legislators to take matters into their own hands. California is clearly just the beginning. Several states are considering following suit, and U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican, has introduced a similar bill at the Federal level. It has bipartisan support.

In this splintered moment in our collective political history, the NCAA is about the only thing both parties dislike more than each other.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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