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URI basketball players could stand to benefit from name, image and likeness legislation.

Late last month, the NCAA took one of its biggest steps yet toward allowing athletes compensation for use of their name, image and likeness. The NCAA Board of Governors expressed support for rule changes proposed by a working group, with a vote expected in the months to come.

Now, like the rest of the college sports world, the Atlantic 10 conference and its member institutions like URI are trying to sort out exactly what their role will be in the potentially brave new world.

“First and foremost, what’s really important is the institutions and the conference – there’s a clear demarcation about them not being able to facilitate these potential third-party endorsements or opportunities to monetize their name, image and likeness,” A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said in an online press conference last week. “That being said, we know there’s going to be a significant enforcement and accountability piece that has to go hand-in-hand with that being enforceable. On the flip side of it, from the A-10’s perspective, we’re going to do what we can every step of the way to make sure our institutions, our coaches, our student-athletes are educated as to the new opportunities now that could be open and available to them.”

Talk of name, image and likeness – abbreviated NIL – has been prevalent in college sports circles for years, especially since last fall, when California passed a bill allowing college athletes in the state to accept compensation for their name, image and likeness, essentially forcing the hand of the NCAA to adjust its rules. Previously, former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon carried the torch for NIL rights with a suit that ultimately found some NCAA amateurism rules violated federal antitrust law.

Nothing has changed yet in the NCAA, but the working group’s recommendation and the support by the Board of Governors signals movement. If approved, a rule change would likely go into effect for the 2021-22 school year.

While athletes at the most visible programs around the country – think Alabama football or Duke basketball – would stand to benefit the most, the door would be open for all athletes to capitalize on their brand, particularly in their school’s markets. It’s easy to imagine the Atlantic 10’s top basketball players doing endorsements or social media influencing. The heroes of Rhode Island’s NCAA Tournament runs in 2017 and 2018, for example, were among the state’s most well-known athletes at the time. In the new climate, endorsement opportunities would likely be available to them.

That’s why the A-10 and its schools are working to prepare for possible changes.

“I think one of the really cool things I’ve witnessed is to watch as student-athletes have become more aware that this isn’t a one-percent rule,” said Jill Bodensteiner, the Athletic Director at St. Joseph’s and a member of the NCAA’s working group. “I think some of the public opinion was that this was for Zion Williamson, this was Joe Burrow, this was big deals with national corporate sponsors. I think with business activities and social media influencing – like putting lessons on YouTube – it’s been cool to watch that evolution. You can see athletes perk up when they realize, ‘This is me. I could do this. I have a ton of followers or I’m into this.’ That’s been really neat to watch.”

The working group’s recommendations list several avenues for athletes to capitalize on their NIL, from third-party endorsements like promoting a business in television ads or showcasing a product on social media, to profiting off their own work product and hosting autograph sessions.

Some restrictions would be in place. Athletes and third parties would not be permitted to use logos or trademarks from the school or conference in endorsements, schools would not be allowed to facilitate endorsements and schools could not use – or allow boosters to use – endorsements as a means of paying for enrollment of participation in athletics.

“Starting with a number of guardrails and working off that makes the most sense, as opposed to just coming in and having sort of a free-for-all,” said Davidson Athletic Director Chris Clunie. “The guardrails provide a framework. And if you have to tweak and change after that, it’s a lot easier to do that, as opposed to opening the floodgates and then having to pull back. By then, it’s a lot more difficult. I think the approach the NCAA is taking is to place the guardrails. It’s not perfect – there are still details to work out – but have a framework and then if you have to tweak it, build from there.”

While athletes wait for the final word, the process of building out that system will continue, and the A-10 will keep a close eye on it all. Bodensteiner is confident that the finished product will represent a positive change for collegiate athletics.

“It’s really hard. I have not seen anyone else submit a complete model. I would love it, for all the experts out there to hand us a model that thinks of everything,” Bodensteiner said. “In my early days, I was a transactional attorney working on the McDonell Douglas merger, and this is the most complex issue I’ve ever worked on, hands down. The whole process has been fascinating and challenging.

“With respect to what’s going to happen when we implement, I’m a total optimist – it’s all going to work out. Remember when sports betting happened, with 50 different state laws? Games are still continuing on, with or without sports betting. Remember when we said students were able to work? Things worked out. I’m relatively optimistic.”

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