Semi-OT: Simone Biles and the NCAA's missed opportunities

Submitted by stephenrjking on August 20th, 2018 at 11:42 AM

The NCAA bans student-athletes from receiving compensation for use of their Name-Image-Likeness (NIL). This has been true for a long time. However, there is a growing call for them to allow players to capitalize on this income without jeopardizing their eligibility. 

One of the arguments against paying players directly out of university funds in revenue sports is that such payments would run afoul of Title IX regulations unless every athlete in every sport makes the same money. This is probably correct, and the net effect would probably be a reduction in total scholarships awarded, including those for women's sports, as revenue sports drive others into the margins.

However, NIL money would not come from universities and thus not run afoul of Title IX regulations; it would simply be unregulated (well, less-regulated, there will need to be some basic safeguards against abuse of the system) by the NCAA. Each athlete draws their own income based upon their own value.

And that's where Simone Biles comes in. Simone Biles just won the US national gymnastics championships. Which event, you may ask? All of them. At 21 she remains the best athlete in her sports, with potential to establish herself as the unquestioned greatest of all time if she continues like this through 2020.

Simone Biles should be a student at UCLA right now. She actually committed to compete for them after the 2016 Olympics, but in 2015 she decided to forego college and "go professional," which for most Olympic athletes simply means accepting NIL sponsorship money. This was a wise decision, because the window for a gymnast to be famous enough to make serious money is small, and it typically occurs at a young age.

Football, basketball, baseball, and hockey athletes that are good enough to play professionally have a choice to spend time in college before making significant income in their chosen sports. One could argue that restricting them to scholarship money is "fair" in this sense because if they're good enough they will make money anyway.

But Simone Biles has no such option. Her choice was, almost certainly, to choose to EITHER compete in college OR to make money from her status as one of the world's great athletes.

A similar option was presented to Katie Ledecky. She comes from a well-to-do family and left millions of dollars on the table to compete for Stanford in swimming; nonetheless, after two years she has also turned professional. 

The NCAA is doing massive damage to its own products by banning its athletes from accepting NIL money. If young Olympic stars were permitted to make NIL money in college, more of them would compete in NCAA events, and the profiles of those sports could skyrocket. Can you imagine the impact on college gymnastics if NBC kept talking about how Simone Biles (not to mention all of the others) was going to compete for UCLA in 16-17 while she was dominating in Rio? 

It hurts the athletes. It hurts the sports. It hurts the schools that could benefit from people like Biles and Ledecky.

The NCAA needs to allow athletes to capitalize on NIL money. Everyone is worse off for their refusal. 



August 20th, 2018 at 11:50 AM ^

I agree completely. But more importantly, congratulations on an excellent post. This is better than most of the opinion pieces I read on sports, even in some serious newspapers. Well done.

Blue In NC

August 20th, 2018 at 12:14 PM ^

Great points and I agree with your perspective.  It does pose quite the dilemma for the NCAA though.  If this passed, undoubtedly many football and basketball players would get lucrative likeness or endorsement deals, probably many from boosters of their given university.  E.g. a Michigan booster wants Higdon to appear in business advertising or Bosa from OSU getting huge sums to endorse a product.  While regulations might be adopted to prevent an athlete from a endorsement deal based on which school the athlete chooses, once at the school, I assume the athlete would be free to endorse.  Athletes would be more likely to profit by going to the schools with the biggest donor programs.  Generally that would benefit Michigan greatly but I can see how that would be problematic from a competitive balance viewpoint.  So it's an interesting discussion.


August 20th, 2018 at 12:27 PM ^

They surely would, but as it stands many profit under the table, too, and bigger donor-pool schools simply have more to offer even above the table (Oregon, for example, and of course Michigan). 

In my ideal world Najee Harris drives a brand new Dodge Charger from that dealership whose cars keep mysteriously showing up on the Instagram accounts of Alabama athletes* but it's completely legitimate because his picture is on billboards in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham advertising for that dealership and the complimentary car is just a piece of NIL compensation. Meanwhile, Donovan Peoples-Jones puts on a Mel Farr cape to promote a Detroit-area dealership (perhaps a double-feature with Felton Davis).

And perhaps we see other programs get shots they wouldn't have gotten earlier. Maybe a group of 5 school in an undertapped market becomes an attractive destination. Who knows? Let the market decide.

* I was harsh on Maizen when he posted a thread about this a couple of years ago, in large part because of his tone and extra baggage in the thread, but he was asking a valid question

Blue In NC

August 20th, 2018 at 1:10 PM ^

Definitely would clear up much of the under-the-table cheating that goes on.  And for the best recruits, could create quite the bidding war.  It would be interesting to see how the NCAA would handle this.  Could a school offer a package (if you sign with us, you will get an endorsement deal with a free car, free apartment, spending money and a $50,000 stipend?  While challenging, I am all for it because it would lessen or eliminate the backdoor deals and the cheaters vs non-cheaters (or lesser cheaters) scenario that currently exists.  Would definitely be interesting to see.


August 20th, 2018 at 12:16 PM ^

My question would be why should Simone Biles be competing at UCLA right now? Much like Ledecky's two years at Stanford, she's clearly far superior to anyone she'd be competing against. It's basically the equivalent of taking the best high school basketball prospect in the country and letting him play middle school basketball. There is no benefit to anyone except the schools, and even the possible benefit to them is questionable considering these are very much niche sports that people mostly ignore outside the Olympics.

Inflammable Flame

August 20th, 2018 at 12:24 PM ^

This, along with "is the training better at UCLA than her professional coaches?" or "would schoolwork get in the way of her Olympic training?" 

OP makes great points and I do agree there needs to be a payment system for college athletes, but I'm not quite sure if you'd get the complete intended result. 


August 20th, 2018 at 1:00 PM ^

This was quite the leap. Who said anything about forced? People are free to do as they choose. I said it would be pointless, and in terms of competitiveness, it absolutely would be. I would imagine Ledecky enjoyed her time at Stanford, but her time there brought no attention to college swimming, which will always be a niche sport.

Also, for future reference, a thing cannot be both earned and free. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.


August 20th, 2018 at 12:34 PM ^

If Simone Biles can compete at UCLA, then so can the rest of the 2016 NCAA Olympics team, and also many international gymnasts for whom a US university education would be a great benefit.

Biles appears primed to compete at a second Olympics; that is rare in gymnastics. Most star gymnasts are basically done after one Olympic appearance, which usually occurs before age 20, and the option to compete at a university would both provide a second stage to their careers and better equip them for life afterwards. Biles would simply be the exceptional leading edge of this; NCAA ladies gymnastics would be transformed, and many of the beneficiaries would be established Olympic stars finishing their careers by getting an education and making some side NIL money.

Also, NCAA swimming programs regularly produce Olympic competitors. Michael Phelps trained at Michigan, and under this proposed concept, could have competed for them while prioritizing his Olympic preparation, had he been inclined to maintain his academic standing. 


August 20th, 2018 at 1:16 PM ^

The issue is that generating NIL money is mostly linked to their status as Olympic athletes. There's a good bit of interest in Katie Ledecky the Olympian. Katie Ledecky the college athlete? Not so much and she's a far more high-profile athlete than your typical Olympian. By and large, once these athletes leave the Olympic sphere, the attention leaves with them. Ledecky spent two years at Stanford and by and large no one cared. The Olympics' greatest achievement might very well be getting people to care passionately about sports that they spend the vast majority of their time actively ignoring. Those sports aren't getting transformed, they're niche for a reason, and I say this as a huge women's gymnastics fan.

Now, as far as the bigger picture goes, all college athletes should be able to earn money from their likeness. Thus, I will gladly concede that if allowing Olympic athletes to compete in college allowed athletes in other sports to also be paid for their likeness, then yes, that would be a major benefit.


August 20th, 2018 at 12:39 PM ^

Well Ledecky and Biles are exceptional, once in a lifetime athletes.  You rarely have one athlete who is so much better than everyone else in his or her sport (hello Mike Trout).

You'll also have more of their peers competing against them at the same level.  So if Simone Biles competed for UCLA, then presumably Jordyn Wieber and Ali Raisman et al would be as well.  

One unintended consequence of this would be crowding out excellent but not quite world class gymnasts (or swimmers or ice dancers or whatever) whose scholarship Simone Biles or Nastia Luikin or Shawn Johnson would take.  


August 20th, 2018 at 12:51 PM ^

One unintended consequence of this would be crowding out excellent but not quite world class gymnasts (or swimmers or ice dancers or whatever) whose scholarship Simone Biles or Nastia Luikin or Shawn Johnson would take.  

That is a possible outcome, yes. 

There's absolutely no guarantee of this, but I wonder if raising the profile for gymnastics could preserve or create more scholarships by encouraging the maintenance of old programs or the creation of new ones. 


August 20th, 2018 at 12:45 PM ^

There's an old case from 2004 that provides a really great example: Jeremy Bloom.


Jeremy Bloom was a WR and PR/KR for Colorado in the early 2000's. He was solid, although not a star at the time. But he was a standout returner who appeared to be growing into a larger role. He also happened to be a really good moguls skier, so much so that he was on the US Olympic team. 


Because training for the Olympics costs money, Bloom had sponsorships for his skiing. The NCAA, in its amazing wisdom, found that this disqualified him from playing college football. Bloom stopped playing college football and continued to ski. He eventually was drafted in the NFL draft when he was eligible but never played a down. 

They've since changed the rule on this I believe, but it's a very similar mindset to what you point out regarding Biles: The NCAA can't get out of their own way.

Things did turn out okay for Jeremy Bloom, by the way


August 20th, 2018 at 12:45 PM ^

Allowing NIL money would benefit Michigan about as much as anybody (except maybe ND), as athletes would gravitate towards schools with the largest following. So I'm all for it.