Dimensional Innovations Practice Director for Collegiate Sports, Drew Berst, recently sat down with NCAA Division I Vice President Kevin Lennon for a one-on-one conversation. Together, the two discuss the impact that COVID-19 has had on college athletics, and Lennon offers his perspective on the new realities facing the NCAA and its membership.
Lennon started by giving a bit on his background, he grew up in Indiana and his father was an assistant baseball coach at Notre Dame; he grew up around sports. He went to Harvard as a football recruit, but also played baseball and rugby. Lennon got his master’s at Ohio and then went to work for Notre Dame; then later to the NCAA in 1990.
Six years ago, he became the Vice President of Division I Governance.
He explained that in his current role he spends most of his time on policy and legislative matters trying to advance the agenda that the presidents have established. Lennon says it’s a dynamic environment with changes and needs to modernize and examine regulations.
He explains that they have such a diverse membership, 351 institutions in Division I that have very different missions, budgets, resources, number of sport offerings, etc. He says that trying to build a consensus and coalesce ideas, to make change happen, is challenging. At the end of the day he tries to educate people and let each of them know he listening and then tries to make the best decision.
Lennon was involved in the payout discussions for this year and says they went from a $600M distribution to a $225 million distribution and they had to determined how that money would be allocated to the Division I members. He says that was one of the first COVID-19 decisions that had to be reached and it did work its way through the NCAA governance process. He says the reduction of the distribution really impacts schools in different ways, for some it’s a significant portion of their budget and for others it’s a smaller portion as their revenue is generated in other ways, like ticket sales.
However, he says that no one is immune from the financial challenges at this time.
Next, he and Berst discussed Name, Image, and Likeness. Lennon says last summer the Board of Governors decided they need to modernize the NIL rules and put forward a set of regulations that was recently adopted, he encourages everyone to read that report as it outlines the reasons why they see the need to modernize these rules.
At the same time states were looking at bills that would make their own NIL regulations and so the Board of Governors decided to release a framework. He says they are working with Congress because they have a need for uniformity across all institutions as it relates to NCAA rules. Lennon explains they need a federal bill that will preempt the state laws so there can be some level of uniformity.
The other key component he talked about is how the NCAA does not want pay for play and does not want an employee/employer relationship with student-athletes, but uniformity is the main reason they hope for a federal bill.
Lennon says the guidelines that came out of the Board of Governors working group set up a framework but does not have legislative authority, so they are in the process now of getting feedback on the principles with an eye on adopting new rules by January of 2021.
As he explains, there is a commitment that an institution would not be involved in promoting or operating a business activity for a student-athlete to use their NIL, the focus is what a student can do with no institutional involvement, but there is a concept of institutional assistance. Assistance might involve education on the rules, help with disclosure, those aspects fall within reasonable assistance. He says they are still discussing how much assistance a student-athlete can receive with NIL, for example some sort of tax help, guidance from a professional, like a publicist, etc.
He explains that the working group sought advices from MLB, Olympics, and other organizations including social media experts, and that was a catalyst to modernize their rules, because the world has changed a lot in the last decade.
Lennon says that the changes in social media and digital content were eye-opening. He says students that were non-student-athletes were taking these opportunities. He explains that was a catalyst as well, not precluding student-athletes from those opportunities but also recognizing their situation is a little different because of recruitment.
They are committed to guardrails, but also letting student-athletes take advantage of the same opportunities as other students. He says it’s important to remember that Division I has not changed any rules at this point, that everything thus far has been concepts, principles, and guidelines.
As for enforcement of the rules to come, Kevin Lennon says should the institution adopt the rules, compliance rests with the institution in assisting the student-athlete. He says in this instance the student-athlete is assuming some level of responsibility as well.
Lennon explains if there is a failure on their part to follow the rules, they may be eligibility implications. He says it will take responsible students making responsible decisions and the institutions will have to provide an appropriate level of oversite, as they must do with all regulations. If there is a systemic problem, like the institution getting with a booster to circumvent the regulations, the NCAA enforcement staff would become involved.
He said the working group is looking at whether a third-party institution should become involved with the administration oversite of the new regulations to assists the student-athletes and perhaps the institutions with compliance.
Next the conversation turned to the NBA G League and how high school players can skip college and go directly to a paid gig with the NBA. Lennon says they believe it’s great that young people have all kinds of opportunities coming out of high school and they should never feel forced to go to college. He believes that the G League is another thing that some young people will factor in when deciding if college is right for them, but he says others may not consider it an option.
He looks at it as another issue they must navigate as they modernize for the 21st century. Kevin Lennon says the collegiate experience is a life-changing one and ultimately that getting the degree is what will set someone apart for the rest of their life for the vast majority of student-athletes and that why they continue to believe in the collegiate model.
Kevin Lennon then went on to say that NIL modernization will likely showcase the fact that these student-athletes are multi-talented. He says he thinks that the fact that young people will be able to showcase themselves and show things that are important to them is terrific for the student-athletes and sport in general. It’s an opportunity to showcase the ‘whole person’ and while regulatory committees tend to focus on the concerns, because of the need for protection and guardrails, that real upside is showing the diverse set of young people who can do a lot of things well.
He closed by saying he does not think the principles of amateurism have changed over time, what he believes has happened is that appropriate adjustments have been made to meet the evolving needs of student-athletes. He says amateurism means you are not paid for playing your sport and none of the changes on the horizon cross over that line, this is a modernization to increase opportunities for name, image, and likeness.