The world of college sports was rocked nearly 30 years ago when a Las Vegas newspaper published a photograph of three U.N.L.V. basketball players casually drinking beer in a hot tub with Richard Perry, a man nicknamed the Fixer who was known for rigging horse races and basketball games.
Though the players admitted only to accepting money from Perry, and gambling charges were never brought, the scandal provoked by that photograph — published in The Las Vegas Review-Journal a little more than a month after the unbeaten Rebels lost to Duke in the Final Four — accomplished what an armada of N.C.A.A. investigators could not. It ushered Coach Jerry Tarkanian out the door.
After the N.C.A.A. laid out plans this week for allowing athletes to cash in on the use of their names, images and likenesses, that long-ago photo might be viewed through a contemporary prism as a simple branding exercise — an embodiment of college basketball’s first bad-boy team.
If a photograph like that surfaced now, it would almost certainly not be published in a newspaper, but on a player’s Instagram feed. And perhaps instead of empty Miller High Life cans, champagne flutes or something more carefully curated would be visible.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the N.C.A.A.’s move toward lifting the lid off income opportunities for athletes is that it will require the association to gingerly welcome boosters and agents into a world where they have largely operated in the shadows — if only to avoid brazenly flouting the amateurism edicts of college sports, a billion-dollar industry whose bedrock is an unpaid labor force.
If the N.C.A.A is to allow athletes to cash in on their fame, how can it not permit them to hire agents and advisers to guide them along the way? And while it may now allow a booster with, say, a car dealership to use the star running back or point guard as the centerpiece of a marketing campaign, how can the N.C.A.A. police whether that offer was made improperly during recruiting? Determining what constitutes fair market value in the world of social media influencing, versus a bribe to attend a particular college, will also be cloudy.
As suggested in the 31-page report on the topic that the N.C.A.A. released on Wednesday, the Division I, II and III committees that are charged with developing rules from the report’s guidelines “will be in uncharted territory.”
In more colloquial terms, the N.C.A.A. is allowing what it has long viewed as a fox into its henhouse, and then asking committees to develop rules — or “guardrails” in the association’s jargon — to keep the chickens safe.
“Among the complex issues that must be addressed is the role ‘advisers’ will have in guiding student-athletes and the process for certifying and regulating these advisers,” the Southeastern Conference said in a statement.
And despite its notorious history of paying to procure players, the conference also rather richly stressed the importance of creating rules that “will, to the extent possible, deter boosters from directly or indirectly paying student-athletes.”
One likely outcome is even more beefed-up compliance staffs at universities. (Ohio State, to pick one of the more well-heeled, already has 14 employees in that department.)
Val Ackerman, the Big East Commissioner who co-chaired the committee that wrote the report, noted that one possibility would be to create a clearinghouse where athletes would be required to file how much they were being paid, who was paying them and what for. There would then be a database that could be monitored.
“The sunshine is the transparency,” Ackerman said.
Of course, there can only be so much sunshine when there are restrictions — or guardrails — in place. In professional sports, the money changes hands above the table. In college, it has simply been handed under the table. When athletes reach the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., the hypocrisy of college sports becomes far clearer to many of them.
That is why Odell Beckham Jr., the star N.F.L. receiver, felt no compunction about handing wads of cash to Louisiana State players on the field after his alma mater won the national football championship in January.
Beckham was only more brazen than Sam Gilbert, a shadowy booster who helped fuel U.C.L.A’s basketball dynasty under Coach John Wooden. A Los Angeles Times investigation once called Gilbert “a one-man clearinghouse,” who helped U.C.L.A. players get cars, clothes, airline tickets and scalper’s prices for season tickets. Beckham’s motives were only purer than those of Nevin Shapiro, a convicted Ponzi-schemer who said he had lavished money, cars, yacht trips, jewelry, televisions and other gifts on Miami football players.
It is no small irony that two people at the forefront of loosening the N.C.A.A.’s grip on athletes cashing in on their fame are Ohio State’s president, Michael Drake, and its athletic director, Gene Smith.
Smith led the department a decade ago when five football players — including the star quarterback Terrelle Pryor — were suspended after trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos. The case set off such a furor that the team’s football coach, Jim Tressel, resigned.
And yet, such an arrangement is likely to be within the rules sometime next year.
In fact, it is easy to imagine in the not-too-distant future a few teammates getting together at a friend-of-the-program’s house for a proposal. Soon, they’re in the hot tub with drinks in hand, smiling for the camera — and listening to an offer they can’t refuse.