While covering Syracuse University basketball games in the Carrier Dome during the Orange men’s national basketball championship run in 2003, I was amazed at the number of people wearing the jerseys of the team’s two biggest stars — Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara. And that got me to wondering why Melo and G-Mac weren’t receiving a small cut from the millions of dollars they were generating for their alma mater. Why was it illegal in the eyes of the haughty National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for them to earn money from jersey or T-shirt sales? Or from autograph show appearances or radio commercials or basketball clinics when it was OK for coach Jim Boeheim and his assistants to make money off their fame?
Yes, I realized Anthony and McNamara were being compensated with free tuition, room and board. And that scholarship money wasn’t chump change by any means. Probably a four-year, $300,000 value in today’s dollars. And the SU stars also were being given an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of 30,000 Dome denizens and national television audiences — auditions that would make Anthony mega-rich when he began playing in the NBA several months after completing his freshman season. But it still seemed unfair to me that Anthony and McNamara weren’t allowed to profit, at least a little, from their collegiate sweat and celebrity, the way their coaches were.
This issue has been percolating for years — at Syracuse and all other universities with big-time sports programs — and it’s finally coming to a head, thanks to some ambitious student-athletes willing to fight the system. A recent Supreme Court ruling in their favor as well as laws passed in several states have provided the impetus for student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness — better known as NIL.
The almighty NCAA, a billion-dollar-a year enterprise, has been forced by the highest court in the land and numerous governors and legislators to acknowledge it no longer can lord over student-athletes under the guise of amateurism. The governing body of college sports had no choice but to open up NIL opportunities for all. That’s a good and just thing.
This means that if current Syracuse basketball players Buddy Boeheim or Joe Girard want to make money signing autographs, staging basketball clinics or procuring sponsorship and user fees for their podcasts and other social media ventures, they’ll be able to do so without risk of losing their eligibility.
There still will be rules and restrictions. It won’t be the wild, wild West. As the New York Times points out, universities will not be allowed to pay salaries to players, and athletes will not be permitted to accept money from anyone in exchange for enrolling at a particular school. There are sure to be bumps in the road as athletic directors and coaches adjust to this brave, new world. The reality is that while some student-athletes will make six figures off their NIL deals, the majority will make pizza and beer money.
In anticipation of these changes, Syracuse and other colleges will offer courses to help student-athletes navigate these unchartered waters. They’ll learn about branding, marketing and entrepreneurship. They’ll learn about the inner workings of the college sports industry, and their new role in that industry. Should be quite educational.
Like many of you, I spent some of my pandemic-induced home-sheltering time rummaging through boxes of stuff I hadn’t looked at in ages. These included several trees worth of newspaper and magazine clippings accumulated during my 48-year journalism career.
One of the treasures I stumbled upon was an interview I conducted with Yogi Berra in the lobby of Cooperstown’s Otesaga Hotel before the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Aug. 5, 1990. And I was thrilled to rediscover that the legendary catcher/wordsmith provided me with a Yogism similar to the scores of other malapropisms that helped make him so famous and beloved.
Still fuming about being fired as manager of the New York Yankees during the 1986 season, Yogi vowed never to set foot in Yankee Stadium again as long as George Steinbrenner owned the team. Before my interview with Yogi, news broke that Steinbrenner had been stripped of his controlling power in the team by Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent. That meant the Boss wouldn’t even be allowed to attend games during his suspension.
I asked Yogi if Steinbrenner’s banishment would prompt the Hall of Famer to end his boycott and attend that year’s Old Timers’ Day at the big ballpark in the Bronx.
“Don’t know,” he replied. “I’m taking a wait-and-see altitude.”
As I chuckled in my basement three decades later, I was reminded that Yogi will always be a gift that keeps on giving.
Happily, he is back in the news again. Making us smile and feel proud. Last week, the U.S. Postal Service issued a forever stamp in his memory, five years after his death at age 90. I couldn’t think of a more deserving person to commemorate. Yes, Yogi had a way with words, and could make us laugh with pithy, impromptu lines like, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” and “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
But Yogi was much more than funny, entertaining malapropisms. He was the embodiment of the American dream — the son of Italian immigrants who fought in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II and went on to become one of the greatest baseball players of all-time and a highly successful entrepreneur who wound up having the last laugh. Yogi was a huge believer in sportsmanship and inclusion, and the eponymous museum and learning center he established near his home in northern New Jersey continues teaching those virtues to thousands of school children each year.
I’ll definitely be buying a strip of those stamps with his likeness. I think I’ll put them in a folder with a copy of that smile-inducing quote he gave me many moons ago. Each time I look at the contents, I’m sure I’ll experience — to quote Yogi — déjà vu all over again.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.