Opinion: Resolution to NCAA’s athlete compensation issue moving at predictably slow pace

ANAHEIM, Calif. — One prominent Power Five athletics director walked out of a closed-door progress report here at the NCAA Convention on Thursday quoting Bob Dylan’s "All Along the Watchtower."

There must be some kind of way outta here

Said the joker to the thief

There’s too much confusion

I can’t get no relief.

Another described his view of this crucial week in the history of the NCAA with one word: Quagmire. Yet another was already on a plane home by the time NCAA president Mark Emmert gave his annual convention speech, but had left with the feeling that they should be further along on solving the biggest issue college sports has faced in a long time.

The truth is, if you came here looking for answers or even hints about how the NCAA is going to allow college athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness in response to mounting political pressure on this traditionally slow-moving organization, your time might have been better spent at Disneyland.

Because even though the NCAA has explicitly promised to have actual proposals on paper by the time its decision-makers convene again in April, they didn’t do much to instill confidence that the substance of what they’re working on will satisfy those who believe the time has come for fundamental change in the way college sports operate.

“Everybody would like it to be simple — including me — but it’s not,” Emmert told a group of reporters Thursday. “It’s complicated and everybody’s going at it with good intent. They want to find right solutions and I’m confident we’ll get there.”

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But even as the process chugs along, the fundamental question is the same as it was last October when the NCAA Board of Directors started going down this road: Is college sports truly ready to open the door for athletes capitalize on their likeness with all the consequences that might bring, or is the collective fear of losing control going to result in a half-measure that will make college sports look out of touch and incapable of reforming itself?

The messages, shall we say, are still mixed.

“We’re well aware of the fact we need to move quickly,” said Grace Calhoun, the athletics director at University of Pennsylvania and the chairperson of the Div. 1 Council. “We’ve got an overlay of trying to figure out a way to do this to preserve fairness, to preserve things that are very important to the association in national standards for fair play. At the end of the day we’re dealing with student-athletes, and we won’t cross that line from them being students to turning into employees.”

As much as the NCAA knows it has to act and do something substantive on name, image and likeness, this is a group of people whose default setting is to address every issue not from the standpoint of what is right but rather what will do the least to disrupt the status quo. And nothing is a bigger potential disruptor of the status quo than allowing college athletes to go out on their own and earn whatever they can get for anything from autograph signings to basketball camps to car dealer endorsements, which is what name, image and likeness is supposed to be all about. In fact, it’s what America is all about.

The NCAA was the last one to get that, and now this exercise in playing catch-up is going to be the biggest test of leadership Emmert has ever faced. Though his speech Thursday wasn’t particularly defiant and included a fairly remarkable admission that the NCAA needed to look inward instead of wringing its hands about why its critics see an unfair system, Emmert was laughably light on specifics of what changes were coming.

It was only later, toward the end of his news conference, where he talked about school presidents starting to focus in on options. He said there’s a “clear consensus” about changing rules that would, for instance, allow a college athlete to make money off a music album that they recorded or a book they wrote. But that’s the easy stuff.

Much harder are the issues that would involve a college athlete endorsing a product or a restaurant, for instance, because of concerns about recruiting. If the NCAA is going to allow athletes to do that, the thought is there has to be some mechanism to ensure that some school’s big booster who owns a local bank isn’t going to pay the star quarterback recruit $250,000 to be in commercials.

“How do you determine what the real marketplace is if someone is going to do some sponsorship deal if they’re going in that direction versus what a booster is going to be doing in that case and creating an artificial market and how do you manage that or police that?” Emmert said. “I think they’re making some really good strides in that direction.”

Not only will fans be interested to hear what those strides entail, so will the U.S. Congress, a whole bunch of state legislators and the people who do the day-to-day work of college athletics.

“There are a lot of questions. Every discussion I’m in, I come out with more questions than I went in with,” Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “You can’t flip a switch. There’s an overwhelming sense of urgency but there’s an urgency to do it right and get it right. You get one chance at this thing.”

Athletics directors, by and large, are watching this from the sidelines with cynical eyes. Many of the younger, more progressive administrators saw the crisis coming years ago and have little trust in NCAA leadership to get this right. They’re not particularly doctrinaire about the name, image and likeness issue, they just want to know the rules they’re playing by. What was notable, however, was how few of them actually came to this NCAA convention. This is largely the presidents’ show.

“Maybe some anticipated that we could get all the parties together in the old collegial way,” said Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson. “I don’t think there’s going to be that kind of time.”

For all practical purposes, time has already run out. The NCAA is on the verge of an existential crisis if it doesn’t do enough to convince Congress that its reforms are meaningful, and yet there’s still this very legitimate question of whether real reform is going to happen or whether it’s going to get bogged down in the uniquely NCAA ethos of money being great as long as it doesn’t flow to the athletes.

“You have to look at the unintended consequences, but we can’t be afraid to change what we’ve done for years,” West Virginia athletics director Shane Lyons said. “I go back to my experiences where we were afraid to let student-athletes work jobs in the offseason and then we put a limit on it and then we lifted the cap and now we don’t have anyone working anyway. Then we elected to do cost of attendance (stipends) and finally got there and the world didn’t end. So this is similar. Are there athletes that are high profile that would gain an advantage of this? Yes. But is that OK? I think it’s OK.”

Indeed, it’s OK — as long as the NCAA doesn’t screw it up.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

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