The Value Gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policymakers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.
Thanks to various state laws, a recent Supreme Court decision and subsequent rule changes by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, college athletes can now profit from their names, images and likenesses, or NIL.
That rule would have come in handy for former Golden State Warriors Adonal Foyle and Festus Ezeli, who both faced scrutiny while on basketball scholarships in college.
Ezeli was suspended by the NCAA for six games in 2011 for accepting a free meal and hotel room from an alumni of Vanderbilt University, for which he was playing, because of what he calls inconsistently applied NCAA rules. Foyle required a larger bed at Colgate University for his nearly 7-foot frame, and faced questions of whether the bed was an impermissible benefit.
Both former pro athletes — who went to colleges different in size — believe that NCAA athletes will now have more leeway, tools and benefits to succeed during their college years.
“As amazing as my experience was, this would have created more opportunities for me,” Foyle said.
But a reliable system for tracking endorsements and other deals, and helping the so-called student athletes avoid potential pitfalls, is still a big question mark.
While Ezeli acknowledged that there is some concern about “kids under 21 being led astray” now that they can make money from being college athletes, he also called it an “amazing opportunity to get their career started.” And Foyle said, “What better place than college for players to learn how to manage money?”
Ezeli is a native of Nigeria who was sent to the U.S. to live with his uncle at age 14 because his parents wanted him to study to become a doctor. After a four-year career at Vanderbilt, he was a first-round pick of the Golden State Warriors and contributed to the team’s championship in 2015. Foyle was also a first-round pick of the Warriors, and later played for the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies before writing a book on athletes and finances.
As college athletes begin to cash in through endorsement deals and more, the two former basketball players spoke in separate interviews with MarketWatch about what the rule changes mean for individual athletes, sports teams, the NCAA system and society in general. They also weighed in on where college sports go from here. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity:
MarketWatch: How would these rule changes have made a difference during your college days?
Foyle: I came from a country [Saint Vincent, an island country in the Caribbean] where we didn’t have a lot of money and resources. I wouldn’t have gone to college had it not been for athletics.
In college, I got a custom bed because I’m 6’10”. There was some discussion about whether it violated [NCAA] policy because I was getting more bed than other kids. That’s insane! I said if there is somebody at this university who’s 6’10”, they should get it, too.
‘You would hope the school could fulfill your needs. At the same time, I have billboards of myself and my jersey is being sold at my school, and I wasn’t getting paid for it.’
— Festus Ezeli
Ezeli: Being a student athlete is like a job. You’re competing to be the best of the best. You practice for hours.
I would be at the gym early before going to classes, then after classes, then after getting homework done. I also wanted to do well in college. I didn’t have time to get a job.
I was depending on what the school could give me. You would hope the school could fulfill your needs. At the same time, I have billboards of myself and my jersey is being sold at my school, and I wasn’t getting paid for it.
I know kids who come from tough backgrounds. Their parents can’t afford to give them what they need.
MarketWatch: Festus, can you talk more about your suspension in college?
Ezeli: I was in Las Vegas, visiting family. The crazy thing is, I had money to pay for a hotel that my parents gave me. When I got there, a friend told me “your money’s no good here.” We went out to dinner and I had a burger — not a lavish thing. Nobody thought anything about it.
Later in conversation, my friend saw the chancellor of the school, told him about the dinner and that he saw me. My friend got banned from the game. My suspension at the time led to my [knee] injury. I tore my MCL and PCL, which affected my career.
I have a podcast called “Rebuilding the Beast.” I talked to former NFL player Todd Gurley, who had a violation in college and was suspended for four games. [Editor’s note: Gurley, while playing football for the University of Georgia, was found to have autographed memorabilia in exchange for cash.] The same thing happened to him — he got hurt after his suspension. I wonder how many other people have been affected [by those rules] like this.
MarketWatch: Do you see these changes righting wrongs and helping fix inequities in sports?
Foyle: One of the biggest distractions for a disenfranchised player is to ask them to spend money they don’t have access to. They’re asked to wear suits to a game. I’ve known guys who didn’t have suits. They didn’t have money to fly home. They couldn’t take a meal when they were hungry. You can’t bring somebody from a place where they don’t have resources and then embarrass them.
Ezeli: I’ve known of a couple of guys who were big rockstar athletes in college and didn’t end up panning out at the pro level. This is an amazing opportunity to get their career started, especially with no other work experience. As an athlete, it’s not like you leave college ready to dive into the workforce. [Being able to make money now] could be a great starter for them in the real world or help them build up a nest egg.
I’m just a fan of the fact that people who don’t have means have a new avenue to make money and support themselves.
MarketWatch: How might these changes affect team dynamics?
Ezeli: There has always been the beauty of college sports … a purity that came with the game. You always had stars because of the quality of their play. Now you’re going to have stars because of their fame. The ability to make money outside of the sport could be a distraction, but it also could be a motivator for people to play better and become stars on the court.
Foyle: There’s some potential for jealousy. When you start to look at the landscape, not everybody gets a multimillion-dollar contract with Nike
But players can sign cards and make appearances. There may be small opportunities to go into their local neighborhoods and get access to some chance they never had before. There will be bruised feelings, but ultimately, the players are going to be able to handle these situations.
‘You can’t wait until you get to the NBA and have $1 million in your hands to figure out finance.’
— Adonal Foyle
MarketWatch: What are other possible risks that come along with these rule changes?
Ezeli: [The old rules] tried to level the playing field. Now you’re going to see the schools with the best amenities, the most resources, money and fans, have a greater ability to market their athletes.
The University of Texas at Austin changed their recruiting tools and their slogan to “the best place to go to work on your personal brand.” Now it’s about how schools are going to help athletes get paid. That might be a drawback. Schools might start recruiting differently based on your social media followers as opposed to how good you are at the sport. The athlete could bring more money to school that way.
With everything good comes some bad.
MarketWatch: Adonal, you wrote a book about pro athletes and money management called “Winning the Money Game.” Can you talk about how college athletes gaining the ability to make money could be risky, and how they might want to apply some of the lessons you mentioned in your book?
Foyle: What better place than college for players to learn how to manage money? Where else would you teach it? The college system has a unique opportunity. This is the time to put a financial program in place to look at this issue and discuss it in an academic setting.
You can’t wait until you get to the NBA and have $1 million in your hands to figure out finance.
MarketWatch: What’s next for the NCAA?
Ezeli: I definitely don’t have the answer. Who’s going to control how much money the athletes will make? They’re on all the different social media: YouTube
How do you monitor all of it?
It’s going to take a whole new section of authority, a new branch to monitor who’s getting paid and how. Players will need to be educated on taxes and legalities. The gambling thing comes into play as well. It’s a whole lot more to monitor. I definitely don’t want to be the NCAA now.
Foyle: The NCAA system is broken. We know that the majority of sports in this country don’t make a lot of money. Most of the money comes from football and basketball, which are played by predominantly Black and brown athletes. Fifty-six percent of NCAA athletes are white, but Black and brown athletes bring in a majority of the money in the collegiate ranks. Athletes were not allowed to get any of the $18.9 billion in NCAA revenue in 2019.
There are inherent disparities in the system. That needs to change to make sure we don’t exploit athletes. There’s no other system in the world where the governing body is a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit], coaches make millions of dollars and have contractual agreements with universities, and the players get nothing.
If a kid comes from an inner city, college gives them a chance. Sometimes they get hurt and lose their opportunity and they get cut. How is that a fair system when you can still end up not getting that degree? A life-changing experience can easily be taken away.
We need to continue to make changes. More has to be done. We have to get to the point where athletes can have access to workers’ compensation and collectively bargain.
Ultimately, athletes are being used for their labor. As such, they should be paid for the work they do … especially given the financial return those programs receive as a result of that labor.