The important thing to remember any time the NCAA talks about giving college athletes something they didn’t have before is that amateurism is a word with no inherent meaning other than whatever the NCAA proclaims it to be.

So when the NCAA finally acknowledges the need for name, image and likeness rights reform as it did Tuesday by appointing 16 college administrators and three athlete representatives to examine the issue, understand that much of the language used is misleading from the very start.

“The group will not consider any concepts that could be construed as payment for participation in college sports,” the NCAA’s news release says. “The NCAA’s mission to provide opportunity for students to compete against other students prohibits any contemplation of pay-for-play.”

OK, sure. Wink, nod, etc.

Didn’t most rational people give up on the bucolic notion of amateur purity about the time, oh, that the NCAA okayed bowl games handing out $550 worth of gifts to every player who appears in one? No matter what you call it, it’s literally a participation fee.

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But hey, this is the way reform works in the NCAA: Demagogue any type of compensation beyond a scholarship as the end of college sports, watch the tide of public opinion turn against the NCAA, fight legal challenges to the current model, then announce reform that doesn’t go particularly far but allows administrators to pat themselves on the back while touting the preservation of their beloved amateurism.

Just a handful of years ago, the big fight was over the so-called “cost of attendance” stipends and how they’d be implemented, whether the amounts each school could give their athletes would be the same, where the money was going to come from for the smaller schools to compete. It’s been fine.

At the Final Four in 2014, Shabazz Napier talked about going hungry some nights because of NCAA rules restricting how often schools could feed their athletes. Though, to be fair, rule changes were already underway when Napier issued the missive that went viral, the dire predictions of a handful of programs tipping the balance of power by serving nightly steak-and-lobster dinners have proven unfounded.

And later that year before the first College Football Playoff, the NCAA responded to a public plea from Urban Meyer by allowing thousands of dollars in reimbursement of travel expenses for players’ families, a program the NCAA expanded to include the men’s and women’s Final Four. Again, college sports hasn’t imploded in a hellfire pit of capitalism.

The latest example: A mere mention of agents used to send buttoned-down college administrators into heart palpitations. Now, college basketball players who want to test the NBA draft process are allowed to hire them even if they decide to come back to school.

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It will be the same thing, of course, no matter how far the NCAA decides to expand name, image and likeness rights. And the reason, ultimately, is because amateurism is a concept that long ago became unmoored to its original meaning.

The tennis Grand Slams stopped caring about amateurism in 1968. The Olympics stopped caring in the 1970s. And even now, many of the benefits the NCAA gives athletes are only congruent with amateurism because the NCAA says so.

Which is exactly the point.

“As part of its efforts, the working group will study modifications of current rules, policies and practices,” the NCAA’s news release says. “In particular, it will focus on solutions that tie any changes to education; maintain the clear demarcation between professional and college sports; and further align student-athletes with the general student body.”

But the dirty little secret is that the line of demarcation between professional and college sports is really whatever the NCAA wants it to be. It has shifted over time and will shift again in response to courtroom losses and now multiple bills being raised in Congress, including one by Rep. Mark Walker (R – N.C.), who has essentially called for the “Olympic model” in college sports that would allow athletes to profit off endorsement deals.

It would be a surprise if the NCAA’s first step toward name, image and likeness rights went that far. The phrase “tethered to education,” which is used in the release by Big East commissioner Val Ackerman, suggests a model where the NCAA and/or individual schools place a percentage of licensing and marketing dollars into a trust that would pay out a lump sum to athletes upon graduation.

Many within college athletes would consider that type of system a huge step forward. Critics of the NCAA would howl that it doesn’t go far enough, maintaining an inequity between what some college athletes are worth and what they’re allowed to receive.

But until a court or a government forces its hand, history tells us to expect that kind of incremental reform from the NCAA rather than a full revolution from within.

Only one thing is for sure. No matter what the NCAA does, it will proclaim that it has maintained its status as an amateur organization. When you own a concept that has no real value in any other context, you can make the words mean whatever you want. 

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