When NC State senior defensive tackle Larrell Murchison arrived at Carter-Finley Stadium this summer behind the wheel of a 2019 Rolls-Royce Cullinan, it did not take long for rival fans to question why the college football player was sporting an exotic $325,000 car.
After all, college athletes are supposed to be amateurs according to current NCAA rules. So why would a student-athlete blatantly cruise around campus in a luxury vehicle? And why would the official NC State football Twitter account proudly post a video of it?
Luckily for fans of the Wolfpack, the vehicle was loaned to the football program, not Murchison himself. Had a car dealership made that arrangement with a player directly, the NCAA would have sent investigators to Raleigh faster than Murchison’s 40-yard dash time.
The publicity stunt, produced by the NC State football program itself, was quickly propagandized into a branded Twitter video aimed to excite fans and, most importantly, catch the attention of potential recruits. If you join the Wolfpack, we will get you ready for the NFL so you can afford to buy a Rolls-Royce one day. Something like that.
Inspired by the modern trend of NFL players arriving to training camp in outlandish and flamboyant automobiles, the gesture provided an innocuous example of how college athletes have become more like professionals and less like ordinary students.
While titanic television rights deals, the advent of legal sports betting and the commencement of conference networks have ballooned the economy of college athletics into a multi-billion dollar industry, the prospect of legislative action has pushed the NCAA to reconsider its governance of student-athletes before it is forced to do so.
Legislation pushes NCAA to open door on amateurism
The NCAA Board of Governors “voted unanimously to permit students participating in athletics the opportunity to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness in a manner consistent with the collegiate model,” according to a release following its final proceeding of the year on Oct. 29.
While the sudden shift in the association’s strategy was noteworthy, the organization has made no change to its existing bylaws on amateurism. The release simply opened the door to future permission of additional benefits afforded to student-athletes without explaining what those benefits may be.
“I don’t believe the NCAA is going to change voluntarily,” said Todd McFall, a sports economist from Wake Forest University. “I think that change is going to have to come from judicial or legislative decisions.”
A list of carefully-worded guidelines for rule modernization was also provided, most notably to “make clear the distinction between collegiate and professional opportunities,” according to the release.
The move defied the organization’s traditional stance on amateurism. As recently as September, NCAA President Mark Emmert suggested that giving athletes the right to use their own name, image and likeness for profit poses an “existential threat” to the collegiate model.
The strategic somersault is seen by McFall as an attempt to get ahead of growing legislative and public pressure on the non-profit organization.
“It's the absolute worst nightmare for the NCAA in that they’ve been able to operate however they want for the last 65 years and now they’re being told how to operate,” McFall said.
When California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act into state law in September, the Golden State became the first to pass a law granting student-athletes the right to financially profit from their own name, image and likeness. Several other states, including Florida and New York, have followed by revisiting or introducing similar legislation.
Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican congressman representing North Carolina’s sixth district, introduced the Student-Athlete Equity Act in Washington back in March. The proposed bill, whose supporters stem from both sides of the aisle, would strip the NCAA of its non-profit tax exemption if it continued to prohibit student-athletes from profiting on their own name, image and likeness.
“We really see it as a nonpartisan issue,” said Jack Minor, the communications director for Walker. “It’s not even a political issue, it’s one that is fundamentally about whether someone has the right to their own image, their own name and their own personal property rights.”
But not all of North Carolina’s representatives in Washington agree on player compensation. In a tweet following the NCAA announcement that it will work to update its rules on player benefits, Republican Sen. Richard Burr announced he will propose legislation that would tax scholarships of student-athletes who financially profit from their own likeness.
“If college athletes are going to make money off their likenesses while in school, their scholarships should be treated like income,” tweeted Burr. “I’ll be introducing legislation that subjects scholarships given to athletes who choose to ‘cash in’ to income taxes.
According to McFall, the NCAA has no one to blame for the government’s intervention on college sports but itself.
“This is all their fault,” said McFall. “They’ve had decades to rectify this imbalance, and they’ve just decided to go all in on a model that allows them to have the most leverage possible above the athletes.”
Walker has offered to work with the NCAA in its effort to modernize its amateurism rules, but he also said that efforts to pass the Student-Athlete Equity Act will continue to ensure the association’s “words are turned into action.”
N.C. bill aims for additional accountability
In Raleigh, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a bill this spring that would create an independent entity for student-athlete mistreatment claims and would also grant college athletes greater control over their own likeness while in school.
N.C. Senate Bill 335, sponsored by three Democrats and two Republicans, aims to provide additional accountability for instances in which in-state universities mishandle their responsibilities to student-athletes.
“Under the current system, a complaint would be filed internally at the member institution,” said state Sen. Don Davis, a Democrat and one of the bill's primary sponsors. “(S.B. 335) would create an independent entity to investigate.”
The entity, referred to as the University Student-Athlete Protection Commission, would administratively fall under the UNC System.
The legislation attempts to compensate for a lack of player representation, according to McFall. Since there is no union for student-athletes, internal complaints are currently the only option for claims of coach or program misconduct.
“It will require schools in North Carolina to be more diligent about safety. Especially in the way athletes are treated, particularly post-injury,” said the sports economist.
Davis said he played football for the Air Force Academy until he suffered a career-ending leg injury. He believes the commission would go further in its commitment to student-athletes compared to the NCAA, especially when it comes to injuries.
“When you look at the catastrophic policies in place with the NCAA, as opposed to where we’re trying to go in this bill to make sure [there’s accountability], if a student-athlete suffers a catastrophic injury that prohibits them from playing,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, we want to make sure they’re taken care of.”
Senate Bill 335 would also require in-state college athletic programs to receive written consent from student-athletes to legally profit from use of their name, image and likeness. Unlike the California Fair Pay to Play Act, however, the bill does not offer any reference to player compensation.
“I believe there are legislators that have taken note and are at least keeping an eye, not only on what’s going on in North Carolina, but what’s taking place in other states,” Davis said.
While Davis considered himself one of those monitoring the ongoing player compensation debate, he was not prepared to share his personal stance on whether student-athletes should be allowed to profit from their own likeness.
“I believe we should continue to have the conversation. The verdict is still out,” said the state senator.
Future uncertain for student-athletes in N.C.
When it comes to student-athlete reform from the North Carolina General Assembly, don’t expect N.C. Senate Bill 335 to become law overnight.
“The bill has not moved to date,” Davis said. “It does not mean that the issue is dead, but there are a lot of other priorities we’ve been addressing such as the state budget. We still don’t have a state budget.”
As for athletes profiting on likeness, the NCAA Board of Governors “asked each division to create any new rules beginning immediately, but no later than January 2021,” according to the October release. While new policies could be introduced spontaneously, the deadline gives rule makers through next football season to come up with changes.
But lawmakers could pass legislation before the organization makes changes on its own.
“I think it’s going to happen really, really fast,” said McFall “The federal government is going to do something."
While the California Fair Pay to Play Act will not become enforceable until 2023, the federal Student-Athlete Equity Act would become effective immediately if passed.
One primary concern of allowing college athletes to profit on their own likeness is that it will take away resources from sports programs that don’t turn a profit, such as most women’s and Olympic sports. But McFall said he does not envision potential likeness deals siphoning away funds from athletic programs.
“I have a hard time believing men’s swimming is going to get dinged because the North Carolina McDonald’s All-American recruit is going to have an endorsement deal with a car dealership in Chapel Hill,” McFall said.
So when changes are actually made, can we expect to see college football players riding around campus in Rolls-Royces? NC State fans know firsthand that it's already happening.
“For the NCAA or UNC or Duke or anyone to look down on what NC State has done, it’s bollocks,” McFall said. “Duffel bags full of cash have been exchanged between teams, and top recruits going back to when Princeton was the best team in the country.”
In July, NC State received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA claiming that former basketball star Dennis Smith Jr. received a $40,000 cash payment through a former assistant coach during his recruitment.
According to McFall, a change to likeness rules will bring transparency to deals that are already being conducted under the table. It would also allow the NCAA to focus on enhancing the student-athlete experience and promoting college athletics as opposed to “acting like some sort of law enforcement mechanism.”
“Throwing down fake subpoenas and forcing people to have four-hour interviews about where they ate dinner with some potential booster one night,” McFall said. “That kind of stuff needs to end, it needed to end a long time ago.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally written for ENG 416 Advanced News and Article Writing and was submitted for publication by the writer.