Big South commissioner’s three-step model would be a seismic shift in college athletics

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By Brian Mull
Big South Correspondent

Accelerated by California lawmakers’ recent passing of the Fair Pay to Play Act, which takes effect in 2023 and enables student-athletes to profit from name, image and likeness (NIL), the NCAA Board of Governors voted unanimously Tuesday to grant student-athletes that right within the collegiate model.

Big South Conference commissioner Kyle Kallander, possessing 34 years’ experience in college athletics administration, has a strong, innovative stance on the issue. He spoke out about it in the wake of the NCAA’s decision.

The issue became a pressing reality in the Big South when lawmakers in South Carolina – home to conference members Charleston Southern, Presbyterian, Winthrop and USC Upstate – recently proposed legislation in favor of NIL.

Kallander, the Big South’s commissioner for 24 years, believes NIL can be effective in a restricted sense in a regulated environment, remaining true to an opinion he’s held throughout his career. He also has ideas on how the NCAA and member institutions can proceed in a restructured manner to function within legal and regulatory guidelines.

His solution involves three clear steps that would reform college athletics to provide an environment in which student-athletes could thrive long-term.

I support some liberalization of our name, image and likeness rules, but I also believe there have to be limits,” Kallander said. “NIL is a complex issue which really transcends the entire structure of collegiate athletics.

First, we must provide an opportunity for student-athletes to benefit from NIL. I believe it just makes common sense to allow student-athletes to be involved in entrepreneurship, business, modeling, online initiatives or other activities where their NIL may be a factor,” Kallander said. “Other students take advantage of this. Ours should as well. I’m even willing to consider some athletics-related monetization – through autograph signing, jersey sales, video games, etc. These activities can be directly tied to their individual NIL. It makes sense.”

Kallander is against commercial endorsements through third-party involvement such as athletes representing car dealerships or apparel companies. Experts told USA Today these deals could be worth $10,000-$25,000 for athletes in certain markets where the college sports team is the headliner.

To me this crosses the line to professionalization,” Kallander said. “Now you are using your NIL to support a commercial product. It seems to me that it is a small step from being paid to represent Nike, or endorse the local Chevrolet dealer due to your athletic prowess, to being a professional.”

Protecting the qualities that make college athletics unique across our nation and around the world, are integral in any amendment to the current landscape, Kallander said.

These include the affinity one feels to their alma mater when returning to campus for a game, the tradition and pageantry of a Saturday football afternoon or weeknight basketball matchup and the rivalries they create within states and conferences. And perhaps most importantly that student-athletes are pursuing degrees which further binds them to the fans rooting in the stands, who followed a similar path in an earlier time.

The connection to higher education, the embeddedness of athletics into the academy, is integral to the popularity of college athletics,” Kallander said. “That is a boundary that I refuse to cross and would serve to remove the distinctiveness of college sports. We must protect the line of delineation between college athletics and the pros.”

Also, common sense dictates there must be standard NIL rules across the NCAA for all members.

We can’t have student-athletes subject to different rules in each state,” Kallander said. “The havoc this would play in recruiting and enforcement would be confusing and unfair, not to mention the professionalization implications mentioned above. Unfortunately, our hands are being forced here and we will have to take action. If this means through the courts, so be it.”

The NCAA Board of Governors, in a letter to California lawmakers, described the bill as unfair and reiterated their belief that student-athletes are students first and should not be employees of the university. They also took the lawmakers to task for creating ‘their own set of rules.’

It isn’t possible to resolve the challenges of today’s college sports environment in this way — by one state taking unilateral action … the rules and policies of college sports must be established through the Association’s collaborative governance system,” the letter stated. “A national model of collegiate sport requires mutually agreed upon rules.”

The third prong is an idea Kallander has nurtured for years. It’s bold and innovative and would require sweeping change from Capitol Hill to the NCAA office in Indianapolis to the administration of every college and university that competes in athletics.

We must seek a limited antitrust exemption through Congress. While the environment doesn’t seem particularly friendly right now, this new interest at the federal level in student-athletes’ NIL may be a door to opportunity,” Kallander said.

I welcome a chance to engage with Congressional leaders to discuss this topic and the importance of what we call the Collegiate Model,” Kallander said. “This can be an opportunity to not only explore additional benefits to student-athletes through NIL, but also educate them on all the great work that takes place in our athletics program and the challenges we face.”

Among the potential benefits of a limited antitrust exemption would be an NIL structure granting student-athletes benefits protection from litigation; an ability for universities to control athletics spending, and perhaps allow the NCAA to compel cooperation in enforcement procedures. The inability to enforce the rule book is one of the biggest issues facing the NCAA, Kallander said.

We have one arm tied behind our back,” he said. “How can we get to the truth if we can’t require witnesses to cooperate? It took an FBI investigation to uncover some of the transgressions in college basketball. Having this ability would truly be a game-changer for the integrity of college athletics.”

Kallander admits these proposals would create a seismic shift to the current college athletics landscape. But such change is already coming as lawmakers in more states propose and pass laws which grant student-athletes more control over their NIL. The NCAA and conferences must be proactive, not reactive, to craft and refine a model that can protect the competition that brings such pleasure and enables the men and women on the courts and fields to pursue and attain a degree.

It’s a tall task,” Kallander said. “Can we provide more benefits to student-athletes through their name, image and likeness while also protecting college athletics, its myriad opportunities and its popularity? I’m not sure. But it’s worth the old college try.”