The NCAA, its NIL reluctance and the man on the inside who was right all along

“Someone like Greg who’s willing to push people on their belief systems is not a comfortable person to have around, always. And I certainly think at the time, he was too ahead of his time.”

The burden of holding a different view, the price of being an outsider on the inside, fell hardest on Greg Shaheen one day more than a decade ago, when his supervisor called him into an office at NCAA headquarters. It’s really unfortunate that you’ve done this, he remembers being told. You’ve given too much of a voice to the student-athletes. This will be — he remembers the term clearly — a limiting factor for your future at the NCAA.

Outwardly, Shaheen took it cool. He shrugged. He went back to work, for a few more long and awkward years. But inwardly he … seethed may be a strong word. But he remembered. He remembered all the way until July 1, 2021, the day the NCAA, as Shaheen put it, “threw up the white flag” on name-image-likeness, the issue that had been a limiting factor in his career. Shaheen remembered.

Over the past year, NIL has turned college athletics upside down. It has led to acrimony, accusations of cheating, and general uncertainty. It is the wild west, no regulation. The NCAA essentially stands powerless, having been defeated in the Supreme Court and by state legislation. Could it all have been avoided?

Yes, if the NCAA had listened to Greg Shaheen.

And perhaps if the one man who was ready to listen to him, the one with the authority to do something big about it, had not died.

“The NCAA has been unwilling to adapt for many, many years. And we are where we are because we’re stuck in the past,” said Maddie Salamone, a former Duke lacrosse player, and now a consultant on NIL and other college sports issues. Salamone was a member of the NCAA’s student-athlete committee, where she got to know Shaheen. It is Salamone’s quote that leads off this story.

“Our committee used to call him Uncle Greg, because that’s how much we adored and admired him,” Salamone said. “We were really upset when he was essentially forced out of the NCAA. That did not sit well with us. Because we really thought that of all the people there he really was trying to change things in a positive way for athletes, and kind of cut through the excuses.”

The NCAA office as constituted in the early 2000s, and through the years, was mostly people who came up through college athletics. Shaheen was thrust into that environment from the private sector. Amateurism, anti-commercialism, and other high-minded notions were not ingrained in him.

Shaheen was put in charge of all NCAA championships — so everything except football’s postseason — as well as media and marketing, and data analysis. It was a high-profile position mainly because of the men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, where at one point Shaheen was put forth to defend the proposed (and abandoned) plan to expand the field to 96 teams.

Behind the scenes, Shaheen was asking questions, including one exchange that was later introduced as evidence in the Ed O’Bannon trial: Shaheen wrote his superiors in August 2007 that the NCAA was leaving $4 to $8 million a year on the table by not allowing video game developer EA Sports to use the real names of college basketball players. “The names and likenesses are rigged into the games now by illegal means,” Shaheen said, “meaning that many of the video game players have the features, it’s just that our membership doesn’t benefit from it.”

The same was the case for the NCAA football game. Early on, this was the main debate about NIL: O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball player, sued because the video game maker and (to a certain extent) the NCAA were profiting while the players whose images were used for the game were not.

Shaheen, looking back 15 years later, chuckles.

“What I was told was: It’s not likeness, because we say it’s not likeness,” he said. “Well okay, but my mom, who is still trying to figure out what I do for a living, if I were to show this to my mom I think she would say this is likeness. I think most common-sense people would say this is likeness.”

As time went on, other issues cropped up, and more evidence to Shaheen that the NCAA wasn’t seeing reality. Coke was a sponsor for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, but the NCAA didn’t grant the use of images of current women’s basketball players, so models were hired to appear in marketing materials. But the criticism was the models didn’t resemble real players, and Coke brought that up with the NCAA. We get it, came the answer, but amateurism.

Shaheen also said EA Sports told the NCAA what they could do with the game if they could use athletes’ likenesses, and offered to pay whatever the NCAA thought was fair. Still, there was resistance from within the NCAA and the membership. It went against the amateurism ideal.

Partly, Shaheen was looking at it from a business perspective, as in the email exchange that made the O’Bannon trial. But he said he also looked at it from a fairness angle, especially the more he met with and got to know student-athletes, the ones whose images and likenesses everyone at the NCAA was pretending were not on those video games, and was saying could not be used in commercials, promotions or whatever. But increasingly those athletes were wondering why.

That’s where “Uncle Greg” took hold. Salamone recalled SAC meetings during which advisors, who worked in the NCAA office, would get “noticeably uncomfortable” when Shaheen spoke, that he was candid, didn’t censor himself, and gave honest and thoughtful responses. She could also tell from conversations with people at the NCAA that Shaheen’s views did not make him popular.

“He’d go off script all the time,” said Eugene Daniels, a Colorado State football player from 2009-12 and now a writer for Politico and MSNBC contributor. “He was someone who was always giving you his honest opinion, and there was no pretense. He wasn’t trying to maneuver or anything.”

But there was one person who, for a time, did listen: Myles Brand, the NCAA president.

A philosophy professor before he rose through academia, Brand left Indiana (where he was most famous for firing Bob Knight) to lead the NCAA in 2002. At first, he was resistant to modernizing NCAA rules, telling the National Press Club that he wanted to “turn down the volume on commercialization” of college sports. But the more name-image-likeness came up, the more Brand began to listen to Shaheen.

“He was a trained philosopher, which meant he would look at the facts, and he’d think hard about it, and there’d be a lot of discussion about anything that was controversial,” Shaheen said. “And if you had compelling information he would rethink. He was always open to rethinking things, and also identifying where things just weren’t right.”

Myles Brand served as NCAA President from 2002-09. (Matt Marriott / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Brand’s willingness to rethink was on display during a 2006 address to NCAA membership.

“Today’s iteration of intercollegiate athletics often is criticized for having abandoned the concept of amateurism to commercialism and big paychecks, while failing to include student-athletes in the perceived financial bonanza,” Brand said. “The problem is we have romanticized the concept of amateurism as an unsustainable cross between its roots in the class distinction of 19th century England, where sport was to be reserved for those whose wealth permitted participation as a leisure activity, and a halcyon ideal that college sports can operate without commercial support and indifferent to the realities of a modern business model.”

Brand asked the NCAA membership to study the issue, even appointing a task force in 2008, which ultimately framed a proposal, one that was mild by today’s standards but reflected some movement. Brand met with Shaheen in August 2009, asking for an update on where things stood.

Four weeks later, Brand passed away from pancreatic cancer. The NIL proposal from the task force, as watered-down as it was, ultimately was defeated by the NCAA full membership. And whatever momentum Shaheen’s views had behind the scenes were gone.

“When Myles Brand passed away, the place just changed,” Shaheen said. “It’s unfortunate, because this topic was literally just at the start at being taken, at that level, serious, as he passed.”

Mark Emmert would take over in the fall of 2010. It was in the time between Brand and Emmert that Shaheen said he was called into the office of his supervisor — who he declined to name — and was told he was not properly representing the organization’s viewpoint on NIL and other issues. The O’Bannon lawsuit had been filed in July 2009, so the sensitivity was high. But the time to be proactive on it was still there: The Alston class-action case, the one that would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court, was filed in 2014. The idea of state legislatures getting involved was way off: California did not pass its law until 2019, and it wasn’t even set to take effect until 2023.

“My point was if we go through all this and end up determining that we’re okay, then that’s fine. But let’s make sure that we do this fair,” Shaheen said. “This is in an evitability, we’re going to continue to deal with this. … You can’t say you’re all about the student-athletes, and bring in billions of dollars in various rights fees and so-forth for showing their performance, and have a blind eye toward the commercial reality that it’s their performance and their remarkable stories that attract people, that have value.”

But after Brand passed away Shaheen was essentially alone in expressing that view, at least within the NCAA offices. He did talk to some administrators at individual schools who were also concerned about what was coming down the pike. And the athletes he talked to regularly were asking more questions about why things were the way they were. Shaheen came away from every meeting thinking the athletes should have a voice and be more involved in the discussion.

Shaheen’s time at the NCAA ended in 2013; call it a resignation, a mutual separation, whatever you want, both sides were ready to move away from each other. Shaheen went back to the private sector, founding the company OSM Advisors, which he still runs. He also had an on-camera stint at ESPN where he offered expertise on how the men’s NCAA Tournament selection committee worked.

He also stayed close to the college athletes. Salamone was set to speak at the NCAA convention in 2014, and the night before was feeling exhausted and deflated, feeling the student-athletes were being ignored. Then she got an e-mail from Shaheen, encouraging her to keep up the fight. It helped inspire her to give a speech where she called out the NCAA to its face about not giving athletes enough of a voice.

“I loved Greg,” Salamone said. “He really was on the side of making things right.”

And history would prove him right. After all the court cases, and after state legislatures raced to pass their own NIL laws, the dam broke on July 1, 2021. No regulations. Little preparation for athletes, who have always worked in a world of NCAA bylaws, but on this, there were no bylaws, so they worried about what they could do and avoid being penalized later.

What could the NCAA have done? Settling the O’Bannon case could have been one option, but Shaheen sees it as less than just understanding that NIL rights were inevitable, and preparing for it. Gradually tweak your rules so you can arrive at a good point where NIL rights exist but with regulations that pass legal and ethical muster.

Instead, the NCAA and its member schools dug in. And the more they dug in, the more the lawyers and state legislators united against the NCAA. And finally, last July 1, the white flag went up and the NCAA is still figuring out what to do.

As NIL rule changes approached in April 2021, Shaheen’s name came up during a zoom call reunion of former SAC members, according to Daniels. They saw Shaheen as a soothsayer who correctly warned that if the NCAA and its members didn’t come up with appropriate NIL rules then others would make the rules for them.

Shaheen looks at it all not with a sense of vindication, he says, or any sense of joy. It’s more of how he responded that day when his supervisor scolded him: A shrug and a shake of his head that college athletics is in this spot because it didn’t accept reality.

“It’s the fundamental belief that amateurism prevented all of these things from happening. Once things moved on that, everything just got caught flat-footed,” Shaheen said. “But to watch it over the last year, I don’t know how anybody can be surprised. The notion that anything that has happened since last July is different from what anyone expected, I’m not sure I can wrap my mind around.

“To me, this was obvious.”

(Top photo of Greg Shaheen: Brett Wilhelm / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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