NCAA's Manziel investigation opens player-rights discussion at right time

Maybe in five or 10 years, the next Johnny Football can brag to his friends about the five figures he made off an autograph signing without concern for looming NCAA investigators.

He can compare notes with peers who hold their own signings.

Then he can go out and beat Bama.

There’s no promise of a world outside what many consider archaic NCAA rule that prevent such earnings. But ESPN’s report of the NCAA investigating Johnny Manziel over whether he was paid for signing hundreds of autographs is another chance for healthy debate over player rights at just the right time.

For weeks, a theme through the conference media-day circuit has been flexibility on the NCAA’s governance structure. The power conferences want the freedom to do certain things with their money, such as pay a stipend or provide meals for players –something besides building a new wing in the indoor practice facility or shipping in rugs from Dubai for the new banquet hall.

Commissioners have made clear: They want change, yesterday.

The NCAA seems to be taking this public push seriously. President Mark Emmert was surprisingly open to the concept of an NCAA subdivision for high-resource schools at the Big 12 spring meetings in Dallas. A BCS-level athletic director said the school recently got an NCAA-issued questionnaire in the mail with a broad range of questions about governance change. The NCAA will host member schools during a governance meeting January.

Player licensing hasn’t been a bullet point on the commissioners’ public wish lists. But if the power schools really are tearing down the current model, stories like Manziel’s should at least be in the conversation.

The narrative has shifted to where reading about Manziel’s case prompts as many questions about why a 20-year-old can’t make money off his own signature than what the NCAA will do to Manziel’s eligibility.

A silly rule is still a rule, one that Manziel might have broken. Proving he broke it could be an arduous task for the NCAA. Following the paper trail is not exactly its strength. The NCAA’s best investigators work for university compliance departments now.

But the complaints about the NCAA’s restrictions on player rights won’t dissipate any time soon, and the issue isn’t something a $2,000 stipend will fix.

Yes, the O’Bannon case against EA Sports, the NCAA and Collegiate Licensing Company over whether players should earn money from their likeness being used in video games will address at least some of the concern.

Conferences and the NCAA taking a proactive approach on licensing instead of waiting for the lawsuit to drop doesn’t shouldn’t be a stretch if done correctly.

The reality is the majority college football players aren’t worth significant licensing money because people don’t buy games or jerseys because of them.

But they would for Manziel. Creating an avenue for elite athletes to capitalize on an opportunity they will never get back – even if in a sanitized way that benefits the school, too – would at least be a nod that the distinction exists. Give players an annuity, annual participation checks based on performance, something. Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel proposes the Olympic model as the Manziel case raises questions about amateurism.

Licensing benefits for players could open the door for more $10,000 booster handshakes, but perhaps there's a way to defer licensing money to avoid the instant gratification component.

That Manziel comes from Texas oil money could have affected his judgment but seems irrelevant in the broader picture. Whether a player has a hefty bank account or no account at all, he can’t get paid for signing his name until he’s out of school – when it might be too late.

Licensing is the divisive issue in college athletics to the point where even officials who admit the obvious say those around them aren’t willing to go that far.

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich told me a few months ago he understands the argument that players should receive a portion of jersey sales because A&M fans are buying No. 2 jerseys with Manziel in mind.

But Radakovich adds, "A lot of people would have to swallow hard to allow that to happen."

Maybe that will change. Slowly.


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