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NCAA vs. Influencers

October 24th, 2019 by dk

Andy Warhol famously promised that one day in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. The pop artist never speculated how people would get paid for their momentary fame, but social media has seen to that. The National Collegiate Athletic Association doesn’t like it one bit.

California passed a law last week that will allow college athletes to profit from endorsements without losing their scholarship or endangering their so-called amateur status. The law won’t take effect until 2023, but high school athletes will be watching. A sea change may be about to break the dam that was erected by the NCAA.

For understandable reasons, the NCAA would like everything to stay the same. Coaches and conferences executives earn millions, while the players are allowed to receive virtually no remuneration for their athletic efforts — until or unless they turn pro.

We can argue whether it was ever appropriate for adults to profit off the efforts of so-called student-athletes, but the situation has recently become untenable for entirely different reasons. Celebrity is suddenly being monetized in new ways, most often in California.

Where did California Governor Gavin Newsom sign the Fair Pay to Play Act into law? On Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James’s TV show. The governor “stopped by” the set of HBO’s “The Shop: Uninterrupted” with a pen and the unsigned bill in hand. That’s how they roll in California. Young people soon will be rolling the same way, from coast to coast.

The new law is limited to endorsement deals, so it shouldn’t impact television contracts or other deals that currently underwrite college athletics. That may or may not turn out to be true, but no one has examined closely this brand new branding strategy — the rising role of social media “influencers.”

The unexplored irony of the current situation revolves around this new dynamic. While the athletes on the field or court are not being paid, their roommates could be attending the games wearing shoes or shirts or hats provided by companies willing to pay them for the exposure their presence can provide.

As the rules are currently written, every college student is free to receive compensation from companies seeking endorsements from “influencers” on various social media platforms. Every college student, that is, except the athletes who have scholarships that forbid it.

We’ve heard the argument that most college athletes will never succeed as professional athletes, so the chances they will bring in huge endorsement contracts while still in school are remote. But that’s not how the world works anymore.

“Influencers” get small contracts from various companies for featuring their products in tweets or selfies or posts on Instagram or Facebook or TikTok. More followers make the products more popular. Payments get larger, leading to new contracts for related products, which earns them more followers.

A successful college athlete can easily amass thousands of followers very quickly on whichever social media platform they prefer. Why shouldn’t they be able to cash in on those proverbial 15 minutes of fame? For most of them, those are the only 15 minutes they’re going to get.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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