Sports

New NCAA pay-for-play rules could spur opportunities, former Iowa athletes say

Even supporters say caution should be used to avoid Pandora's box

Iowa Flyers coach Chris Dawson, a former Iowa Hawkeyes swimmer, talks to IFly swimmer Aurora Roghair during the 2019 Speedo Midwest Challenge at the University of Iowa Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Flyers coach Chris Dawson, a former Iowa Hawkeyes swimmer, talks to IFly swimmer Aurora Roghair during the 2019 Speedo Midwest Challenge at the University of Iowa Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in Iowa City, Iowa, on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Less than 24 hours before University of Iowa swimmer Thomas Rathbun was scheduled to compete in the 800 free relay at the Big Ten championship meet in February 2017, the Sioux Center native was ineligible.

The reason?

Rathbun and Chris Dawson, a friend and fellow UI swimmer, had used their names and photos on a GoFundMe campaign to launch a T-shirt company.

It represented a violation of NCAA’s rules prohibiting college athletes from using their own names, images or ties with college sports to make money.

“It was Big Ten championships and we’d been training all year and to be sat out for something pretty trivial was not in the plan,” recalls Rathbun, who graduated from the UI in 2018 and now coaches swimming at Duke University in North Carolina.

But the rules are changing.

California passed legislation in September allowing college athletes by 2023 to hire agents and make money through endorsement deals. The NCAA followed last month by saying it would ask its three athletic divisions to “consider updates” to bylaws and policies by January 2021 that could open the door to student-athletes benefiting from their names, images and likenesses.

Two Iowa lawmakers also have asked the Legislative Services Agency to draft bills similar to the California law.

Benefits and concerns

Former Iowa student-athletes told The Gazette they generally support changing the rules so players could benefit financially from their status, but they also point out concerns about the evolving pay-for-play landscape.

“I’m a little worried it will open Pandora’s box here and there will be a lot of problems,” said Nate Kaeding, a former place-kicker for the Iowa Hawkeyes who played in the NFL for nine seasons. “If there’s a way to control it and manage it, it could be good for the college athletes.”

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Kaeding, an Iowa City business owner and developer, said it would be nice for student-athletes to make some cash at short-term gigs, like autograph signings.

But he fears endorsement offers for marquee players could turn into under-the-table recruitment tools for wealthy universities.

“My worry is the business community and boosters start dangling these things in front of high school juniors and seniors. You get a Corvette at one place and an F-150 at another,” he said.

Kaeding thinks the NCAA might want to prohibit endorsements in the freshman year and cap per-player compensation.

Gender differences

Jill Zwagerman, a Des Moines lawyer who ran track at Drake University in the late 1990s, said she remembers getting waivers so she could get paid to write for the Iowan magazine. She had to be careful to not earn too much money or she would have to pay back part of her athletic scholarship, she said.

“All my friends had part-time jobs and could earn all the money they wanted,” she said, “but I couldn’t.”

Men’s basketball and football players have the most to gain from endorsements and other compensation because those are the programs that make millions of dollars a year in ticket revenue, television contracts and advertising.

But Zwagerman, who has represented female student-athletes in gender equity lawsuits, thinks revising the pay-for-play rules could help women as well.

“A softball player, who may or may not have a full scholarship, she can advertise a softball clinic in the summertime,” Zwagerman said. If the rules changed, that student could use her name, photo and link to a collegiate program to help recruit campers.

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Or Katelyn Ohashi, a UCLA gymnast, could have made some money when her Michael Jackson-themed floor routine went viral in January.

“I was handcuffed by NCAA rules that prevented me from deriving any benefit from my own name and likeness regardless of the fact that after my final meet I had no pro league to join,” Ohashi said in an Oct. 9 video opinion piece for the New York Times.

If the NCAA rules were different, Ohashi could have starred in an ad campaign to inspire girls and young women in sport, Zwagerman said.

“Girls are craving and really needing female role models, so it should be a good thing,” she said.

Zwagerman does not think allowing college athletes to make money would endanger Title IX, the federal gender equity law, because companies that could provide endorsements or sponsorships aren’t government entities required by the law to provide equal resources to men’s and women’s sports.

entrepreneur EFFECTS

Many universities are trying to teach students entrepreneurship, but under NCAA rules, student-athletes can’t pursue business ideas the same way as others.

As UI juniors, Rathbun and Dawson started Trailheads Apparel, an outdoor-clothing company that sells shirts with messages like “Camping? It’s in-tents” and “Yeah Buoy.” Fifteen percent of proceeds goes the American Red Cross.

Their 2017 GoFundMe site, which raised $645 in two days, provided the students’ names and how they met as UI swimmers. That was enough to trigger a complaint to Lyla Clerry, UI associate athletics director for compliance.

Clerry asked Dawson and Rathbun to take down their GoFundMe page, which they did. But the swimmers were declared ineligible while they negotiated a waiver that required them to remove their names, photos and any reference to the UI from the Trailheads website.

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The men were reinstated just in time to compete at the 2017 Big Ten championships. They still run Trailheads Apparel.

“We had a little ceremony for ourselves once we graduated where we changed everything on our website,” Rathbun said. Dawson’s photo shows him wearing a UI Tiger Hawk-emblazoned shirt and both men’s bios mention they met swimming for Iowa.

The incident came up again when Rathbun started coaching at DePauw University in Indiana. A DePauw student-athlete wanted to promote his country music, and athletics department staff were trying to figure out what was allowed under the NCAA, Rathbun said.

“It was one of my first staff meetings,” Rathbun said. “I stepped up and shared my experience.”

The men’s story has been included in national news reports about the California legislation.

“It’s cool to know Tom and I were part of something a little bigger than ourselves,” said Dawson, who coaches with the Iowa Flyers Swim Club in Iowa City.

Dawson, who graduated with degrees in English and film, now is raising money to produce a film about the similarities among humans around the world. He’d like to see more student-athletes be able to pursue entrepreneurship earlier.

“It’s going to be a good step for people on the same path as me and Tom,” he said. “Just removing the ceiling is going to be the biggest step.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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