Even if college basketball isn’t your thing, you may be feeling a tinge of excitement about our hometown team, the San Diego State University Aztecs. As I write this, the Aztecs have reached the Final Four, the near pinnacle of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I basketball season; a victory on Saturday would mean they are playing for the national championship tomorrow.
Regardless of the outcome, Tommy Morris hopes the Aztecs’ success will inspire people to show their support for the team through a donation to the MESA Foundation (mesafoundationsd.org), a 501c3 organization. Morris serves on the foundation’s advisory board.
The Mentoring & Empowering Student Athletes Foundation was established last year to provide Aztec student athletes a way to monetarily benefit from their name, image and likeness, or NIL. It connects players — and their social media platforms — to charitable organizations in San Diego. They promote and participate in events, raising awareness and funds for the charities.
Players are compensated for their involvement. According to Morris, the money is most often used to help with rent or airfare, so parents can see a game. As an added benefit, the athletes deepen their off-the-court connection with our community.
MESA came about after the NCAA adopted the Interim Name, Image and Likeness Policy in July 2021. It allows student athletes to monetize their NIL without jeopardizing their eligibility to play.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick provided historical context for the decision. When the NCAA men’s basketball tournament began in 1939, there were eight teams. The numbers doubled over the years to 64 teams in 1985; an opening round “play in” was added in 2001 and expanded in 2011.
Television coverage grew along with the tournament. CBS and Turner have paid hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the broadcast rights (soon to be $1 billion). As the tournament’s popularity increased, so did the value of a winning team — and the salaries of successful coaches.
As Jenkins and Swarbrick wrote, it created concerns about fairness. Student athletes contributed considerable talent and hard work but couldn’t be compensated for it — even as their schools and coaches profited. That led to antitrust suits against the NCAA and athletic conferences and, now, a change in NCAA regulations.
And as Tommy Morris explained, social media has become an accelerant in the pay-for-play discussion. The top student athletes have star power beyond their performance on the court or field. On3, a company that determines NIL valuations, uses an algorithm that considers both “roster value” (athletic results) and “brand value” (social media strength and market exposure).
It’s landed San Diego native Mikey Williams in the No. 2 spot on the NIL list — even before he plays a minute of college hoops. Williams’ current valuation is $3.6 million. He’s considered the 24th best player in the country and a social media phenom, with 6 million followers. Williams, who will play for the Memphis Tigers this fall, already has endorsement deals with Puma and other companies.
I understand the argument in favor of paying student athletes — and I think it’s the right thing to do. Transparency is certainly better than the open secret of under-the-table payments.
But I can’t help thinking about the fairness factor and the likelihood that NIL will deepen inequities between teams and players. Smaller programs will undoubtedly have a tough time competing against schools whose supporters can afford to pay up. And locker room conflict — between the haves and have nots — will grow.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Ross Dellenger said NIL deals have created “a new arms race” in college sports. Athletes are being paid large sums of money (sometimes as much as seven figures) for endorsements and appearances, underwritten by big donors. “Collectives” have been established at top-tier schools, pooling millions of dollars for the purpose of athlete recruitment and retention.
It’s why MESA Foundation landed on a different approach, compensating players equally for using their NIL in a way that benefits the community.
Not so long ago, college sports had a different sort of appeal for players. They built lifelong friendships. They gained leadership skills. And they got an education — important, considering that fewer than 2 percent of student athletes go on to play professionally.
They also learned what it means to be the member of a team, acting unselfishly for the good of all. In the NIL era — with its focus on personal gain — teamwork could suffer. Sure, the players will be enriched. The fans? Not so much.
Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group working to create solutions to challenging issues, including intolerance and incivility. To learn about NCRC’s programming, visit ncrconline.com
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