The NCAA’s New Starkiller Base

The NCAA is working on crafting its most devious weapon yet.

Fans of the Star Wars franchise have seen many elements in the sequel trilogy, to be concluded this December with Star Wars Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker, act as an homage to the original trilogy.

Starkiller Base, a plot element of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, was such a tribute. Designed by the villainous First Order as an amped-up version of the Death Stars from the original trilogy, Starkiller Base is a spherical super weapon that emits powerful laser blasts. The goal is to eliminate the protagonists and all the planets they hold dear.

In late 2015, The Force Awakens was released amid a real-life court case involving another powerful entity. Months earlier, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had made a ruling, in O’Bannon v. NCAA, on the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s control of athletes’ Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) rights.

These might seem like two entirely separate cultural events. Yet the First Order and its superweapon are perfect analogies for the NCAA’s efforts to protect its stranglehold on athletes’ ability to do what every other adult in the United States can do: profit off the use of their own NILs.

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The First Order claims its mission is to restore the rule of law to a galaxy in chaos. Similarly, the NCAA claims responsibility for safeguarding athlete and school interests. Both bodies follow a strict set of bylaws that govern their operations.

If the NCAA’s bylaws on other matters can be likened to the Death Stars from the original films, then the evolving bylaws governing how athletes can maintain their eligibility while profiting off their own names, images, and likenesses could become a Starkiller Base.

What the NCAA is fighting for

The battle over athlete NIL rights is nothing new. For years, former players like Ed O’Bannon have tried to force the NCAA to reform its bylaws through a mixture of litigation and public shaming. The NCAA has mostly fought back hard against any change to the status quo, which deems athletes ineligible if they receive any funds for use of their NILs.

In May, however, the NCAA announced that it is forming a working group to consider modifications to its existing bylaws on NIL rights. The NCAA admitted in its press release that the group was being formed in response to legislation proposed in various states and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Who is leading the resistance

Earlier this year, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) introduced legislation in the U.S. House’s Ways and Means Committee that would strip the NCAA of its tax-exempt status if it continued to declare athletes ineligible for NIL compensation. A bill in Maryland would allow college athletes to unionize and collectively bargain the terms of their labor.

In California, a bill that would make it illegal for the NCAA to enforce its bylaws on this matter has already cleared the state Senate and is being considered for a vote by the state’s Assembly.

In what could be a proxy for legal challenges to come, the NCAA has responded to the situation in California by sending a letter to the chairs of two committees in the Assembly. The letter makes it clear that enacting the law could prompt the NCAA to bar its California members from participating in championship events.

Such a move by the NCAA would likely force those California members like UCLA and USC to file suit against the NCAA, arguing that the NCAA is violating federal antitrust laws. There’s a strong case to be made in that regard. The NCAA does have some legal precedent on its side, however.

Earlier attempts at rebellion

This isn’t the first issue on which states have tried to modify NCAA bylaws using legislation. In the early 1990s, several states passed laws to force the NCAA to change how it conducts its internal investigations into rules infractions. The NCAA filed suit and won, in a case that became known as NCAA v. Miller. The point on which the NCAA prevailed was that individual states could not regulate interstate commerce.

There is a way that the NCAA could be in compliance with current bills like those in California or the U.S. House, if they should become law, and still maintain control over the profit at its member institutions. This strategy would echo that of the First Order, of Star Wars lore, in managing every facet of the economy on conquered planets.

Critics of The Force Awakens charged that the plot of the movie was too similar to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Likewise, in regards to NCAA bylaws enacted regarding athletes and monetary issues, we’ve seen this movie before.

The NCAA’s “Death Star”

In 2014, the NCAA modified its rules to allow athletes in five sports (American football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s ice hockey) to take out insurance policies that secure their economic interests as future professional athletes against injury while playing for NCAA-member institutions. These have become known as loss-of-value policies.

As many of these athletes could not afford the cost of the riders on these policies out of pocket, the NCAA allowed students to take out loans to cover that cost. The NCAA also set a new precedent when it declined to discipline former Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston or the Seminoles when Florida State covered the cost of that rider for Winston.

What could’ve been a step forward for athlete rights actually became a new technique in exploitation. Veteran insurance agent Ronnie Kaymore has laid out his experiences working with high-profile college athletes regarding loss-of-value policies. Kaymore has detailed how athletic departments use paying the riders on these policies to control every aspect of the insurance, and how in doing so they harm the athletes.

These activities have included failures to accurately fill out required forms, steering athletes to certain agents who have tangible connections to the athletic departments, and going as far as to illegally act in lieu of insurance advisers to the athletes’ detriments. Those deficiencies have led to claims being denied on several occasions.

The insurance problems should be a warning for what could happen with athletes’ Name, Image, and Likeness rights as well.

How the NCAA could build its Starkiller Base

As Starkiller Base was a Death Star on steroids, athlete endorsement and publicity could become the next arena in which we see NCAA member institutions amp up the same methods it has used in the administration of loss-of-value insurance policies.

The NCAA member institutions’ athletic departments currently coax athletes to give up their rights to handle loss-of-value policies in exchange for covering the costs of riders. Similarly, NCAA members could maintain its kleptocracy by continuing to require athletes to sign over their NIL rights in exchange for scholarships.

That could lead to the athletic departments acting as de facto talent agencies for the athletes. NCAA member institutions would likely exclusively contract with third parties with tangible connections to the universities, restrict which parties from which the athlete could accept endorsement deals, and take the lion’s share of money paid in exchange for using the athletes’ likenesses.

The NCAA’s member institutions are the parties that have built the current system of exploitation of athletes. The objective is clear: enrich themselves and the few at the top of the economic food chain. It’s too similar not to notice how it reflects the backstory of the First Order and Starkiller Base in Star Wars lore.

The First Order began when a remnant of the Galactic Empire returned from defeat in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi to build the terrible weapon known as Starkiller Base to reassert its control over the galaxy. Likewise, those who are currently profiting off the status quo in the NCAA aren’t going to accept defeat to their ability to fleece the publicity of athletes for profit from Congress or state legislatures. They will simply adapt and rebrand.

The key to making sure this Starkiller base never gets built is education. Athletes and their families should acknowledge that college athletics is a business and their NIL rights are a valuable asset. They need to employ independent, qualified representation to ensure that they don’t become the next victims of the NCAA’s mission to dominate the galaxy.

Derek Helling
Derek Helling
Derek Helling is a sports writer who doesn't care about sports. After working for small-town newspapers for years, he left his job fielding phone calls from people who somehow were all the parents of the next Lindsay Whalen or Tom Brady so he could write about things that actually matter like business and the law.



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