Zags in the cross-hairs of the NIL issue

Already, on the subject of college athletics’ percolating name-image-and-likeness issue, Gonzaga occupied a position in the sporting landscape that was distinct, perhaps unique (much more on that later).

Then this week, GU basketball coach Mark Few threw a spotlight onto the topic in his interview with writer/analyst Jeff Goodman, saying it was “totally disappointing and disgusting” that the matter should have fallen into the hands of the California state legislature and governor Gavin Newsom, in the form of the Fair Pay to Play Act to take effect in 2023.

It was an odd intro into saying that he indeed supports athletes being able to profit on the NIL front, with a means to regulate it and somehow ensure a level playing field. Perhaps the most egregious error in his foray into “grandstanding” politicians is, it’s beside the point. What matters here is that the NIL issue is upon us and it deserves to be. The NCAA’s 19-person working group on the matter is due to deliver proposals to the NCAA board of governors later this month.

And a final word on “grandstanding”: The NCAA operates at about the same template as major league baseball playoff games – slow, slower and slowest. If it takes elected officials to apply a kick in the butt to college athletics’ august governing body, so be it.

But to Gonzaga’s stake on the proper landing place for the NIL debate: Two elements are at work that make GU’s station particularly intriguing.

One is the laser focus in Spokane on Gonzaga basketball, which has been known as the pro team in the city. We might be about to find out how fitting that description is.

The point has been made that a lot fewer athletes are going to be impacted by Fair Pay to Play than the doomsayers believe. Turning the example to my side of the state, think about the University of Washington football team of a year ago, one that won the Pac-12 and played in the Rose Bowl. The quarterback of any team is always a likely candidate (although in promoting him, you wouldn’t want to show any of Jake Browning’s turn-and-run-the-other-way videos against a pass rush). Myles Gaskin was a 5,000-yard career rusher who would have been worthy. But who else? Maybe one or two guys.

On the other hand, consider Gonzaga’s wildly popular outfit of 2018-19, with Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, Josh Perkins, et al. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to envision four or five players hooking some type of endorsement deal in Spokane – although those last two words are pivotal. A city of about 200,000 proper has only so many business and corporate opportunities. Still, as Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth points out, wouldn’t a guy nicknamed “Snacks” (Zach Norvell) have a great opportunity to cash in?

Or think about the cult-hero status Gonzaga’s last man off the bench attains (paging Rem Bakamus). It wouldn’t be out of the question that some sandwich shop enlists him to swear by its cold cuts. The pay obviously would be modest, yet it would need to be accounted for.

Did somebody say Rui? Or in past years, Domas Sabonis? Ronny Turiaf? Roth says of Hachimura, a folk hero in Japan, “Last year his endorsement deal probably would exceed his first year’s NBA salary. All you had to do was come to a post-game press conference. There were 20 media outlets in Japan there.”

Yeah, Sabonis might have snared a contract with a local car dealership. But he might have also done well in his homeland of Lithuania, especially as the son of Arvydas Sabonis. No doubt there are other overseas Zags who might cash in. (And an aside: Imagine, more than a decade ago, how Adam Morrison, a local kid with a national following, could have made out.)

Over the phone, I could almost hear Roth shuddering.

“Something’s going to change, there’s no doubt in my mind,” he says. “I’m a big fan of, we need to get more to our student-athletes. It’s been that way before we started cost-of-attendance (the NCAA upgrade that a few years back brought scholarships in line with actual costs). But I’ve never been in favor of pushing the envelope to professionalize. I don’t want to make the student-athlete an employee or anything like that. I don’t know how you capitalize on name-image-likeness without becoming a professional.”

Roth scoffs at the notion that the star quarterback is going to get in his car and drive out to the local auto dealership to pitch his value. Instead, he fears, the recruiting visit in the prospect’s living room “will include an agent. The question won’t be what major or what the schedule looks like or the shoes you’re wearing, but how much you’re guaranteeing the son or daughter in name-image-and-likeness at your institution.”

The debate sparks a recollection. Back in the ’70s and ‘80s, schools going rogue with the NCAA rule book had boosters who would hire the star halfback, and he’d make big bucks for turning on the automatic sprinkler system and turning it off on his way home from the golf course. Then two things happened: The NCAA eventually cut back on allowing jobs, and schedules in most college sports got so jammed year-round, holding a job was out of the question anyway.

Name-image-likeness revisits this. The athlete, by lending his name, abets the business enterprise in the same general manner as he would if he were working in the company’s warehouse. And now the NCAA has to make it all work.

Is it a given that NCAA enforcement must increase, that schools’ compliance staffs will be bumped up?

“Either it’s increase compliance, or you do away with compliance,” Roth says. “You just say, ‘Why bother?’ “

One model likely to get some run is that of requiring athletes to put endorsement gains in a trust fund that can’t be accessed until he/she leaves college. Then there’s the notion of putting a cap on what athletes can earn. Those are concepts that, if enacted, seem certain to find their way into a courtroom.

Lots of imponderables. You could imagine this working group working overtime.