The testimony of SEC executive associate commissioner Greg Sankey at Tuesday's O'Bannon trial raised the issue of one of the NCAA's biggest boogeymen: boosters. The organization argues that if athletes are allowed to be paid, boosters could circumvent the system and pay players more to go to certain schools.
Booster payments already happen on a pretty wide scale, despite the NCAA's preference to just ignore them. But even disregarding that, this NCAA defense banked on Judge Claudia Wilken agreeing that booster payments are relevant to the case -- and that they are, as the NCAA will have us believe, inherently evil:
Judge Wilken has now twice questioned why the NCAA is focusing on third-party payments, seems unclear whether that's part of the case.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) June 24, 2014
As college football fans and writers, we've grown up thinking booster payments are bad. But for complete outsiders like Wilken, some NCAA rules seem absolutely baffling. When you think about it, what's so bad about a player getting money for being good at what he or she does? And what's so bad about a booster using money to convince players to go to a school?
This is something the NCAA can't get past, as evidenced by Sankey's argument:
Sankey says he believes if NIL payments are allowed then players would start directly advertising products. Nobody disputing that.— Brady McCollough (@BradyMcCollough) June 24, 2014
A college football fan might see how that is "bad" from an NCAA perspective, but when trying to convince a federal judge that players and schools will be hurt by changing the rules to allow for booster payments, telling the judge that athletes will be better off financially under the new model is ineffective. Wilken seemed to agree:
Judge Wilken asks whether it's OK for a team to be sponsored by, and use, Gatorade, but not OK for athlete to receive $ from Gatorade.— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) June 24, 2014
If the NCAA wants to regulate booster payments, there are ways it can do that. For instance, it can require boosters to register like NFL agents do, then harshen the penalties for breaking the rules — in that case, players who are already being compensated would have less of an incentive to break the rules and potentially risk their eligibility.
But even in that case, the NCAA might find itself dealing with another court case arguing that registration rules are necessary. And again, it will have to try to convince a judge that booster payments are inherently wrong.