As March Madness begins, a group of basketball players from more than 15 teams have launched a social media movement to raise awareness for claims of inequitable treatment of college athletes. The #NotNCAAProperty campaign surfaced Wednesday night in tweets by Rutgers guard Geo Baker and other players. The campaign’s goals are expressed in a press release issued by the National College Players’ Association. The campaign expresses four demands:
1. NCAA rule changes to allow all athletes the freedom to secure representation and receive pay for use of our name, image and likeness by July 1;
2. A meeting with NCAA President Mark Emmert;
3. Meetings with state & federal lawmakers and President Biden’s administration to pass laws to give college athletes physical, academic and financial protections;
4. The Supreme Court to rule in support of plaintiffs in Alston v. NCAA, thereby denying the NCAA any power to withhold equal freedoms to college athletes.
The players’ reference to being “property” is historically significant. It is reminiscent of a passage from Curt Flood’s letter to MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1969, in which Flood alluded to slavery:
“Dear Mr. Kuhn,” Flood wrote. “After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several states.”
Flood’s letter sparked a historic lawsuit that, while unsuccessful, inspired the eventual recognition of free agency rights for MLB and other pro athletes.
The #NotNCAAProperty demands come at a critical time for college sports. College players are expected to be able to profit from their name, image and likeness, but that has not yet happened and the timetable for its adoption is uncertain. Congress might pass a federal NIL statute, but the politics are hazy. Florida’s NIL statute goes into effect on July 1, but the NCAA could challenge it (and other state NIL laws) in court. The #NotNCAAProperty players are sending a blunt message: Figure out a solution and make it happen soon.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Shawne Alston is a wish that only some combination of five or more justices can grant. That case also centers on specific applications of antitrust law, rather than on social justice considerations or broader notions of fairness. That’s not to say the justices—or their clerks, many of whom were college students not long ago—are unaware of the practical stakes of the case or won’t learn of the #NotNCAAProperty movement. Just like an amicus brief can influence the justices, a timely and highly publicized movement could catch their attention.
The #NotNCAAProperty campaign provides an influential voice to key issues, but the “or else” isn’t clear. The group’s statement stresses that the NCPA “will arrange panel discussions,” where “unjust NCAA rules” are discussed. However, the statement doesn’t threaten what might be seen as the nuclear option: walking out of March Madness games. The players enjoy much more clout over the next couple of weeks than they will once the tournament ends. Refusing to play in games would wreak havoc on the NCAA’s television deals and potentially lead to litigation over who bears the loss.
A walkout or protest wouldn’t be unprecedented, either. There were walkouts in sports last year, as Black Lives Matter reshaped athlete speech. In 2013, football players at Grambling State declined to participate in a game as a form of protest over facility conditions. Yet that type of outcome seems unlikely here. The letter mentions a July 1 deadline for a resolution on NIL but doesn’t express a timetable for other actions. Many, if not most, of the players might be unwilling to sit out of tournament games—games that will be highlights of their collegiate careers.