The man who played a lead role in helping the NCAA earn its status as a billion-dollar organization says there is no longer a way to justify the current limits on how college athletes can make money.
From 2012 through 2016, Mark Lewis oversaw a division of the NCAA that organizes and stages 90 championship events each year. During his time in that role, Lewis increased corporate partnerships and completed a landmark $8.8 billion, eight-year extension to the contract that gives CBS and Turner the television rights to the annual men's basketball March Madness tournament. The proliferation of television contracts at the school and conference level, Lewis said, has been a driving force that has fundamentally changed college sports in the last several decades.
"The priority is to monetize the sport," Lewis told ESPN this past week. "That's taken precedent over everything else. If that's the model -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- then you can't expect the players to live by the same set of rules [as they did in the past]. To me, it's just a question of fairness."
As NCAA leaders prepare to discuss the possibility of a more equitable future for athletes at their annual convention in Anaheim later this week, Lewis is attempting to effect change through a different avenue. The former executive recently joined an oversight board assembled by the National College Player Association -- an organization working to increase the compensation and voice of college athletes.
The NCPA and its founder, Ramogi Huma, have been battling the NCAA to try to provide more money and other benefits to college athletes for nearly two decades. That fight reached a major turning point in 2019 as added pressure from state and federal lawmakers pushed the NCAA to publicly acknowledge in late October that the status quo for athlete compensation is no longer enough. Three months after directing members to find a new solution, NCAA leaders expect this week's meetings in Anaheim will produce the first concrete proposals of how far schools are willing to go to change the rules.
Huma helped legislators in California create a new law that will make it illegal for universities to follow the NCAA rules that prohibit athletes from collecting endorsement money while playing college sports. That law, which does not go into effect until 2023, spurred nearly 20 other states to consider similar bills and added more urgency to a Congressional effort to create a similar nationwide law.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said he has spent the majority of his time in the past several months meeting with members of Congress to push for a federal law that would allow the NCAA to set some "guardrails." Emmert and others at the NCAA say they want to place limits on how athletes can market their names, images and likenesses in order to avoid negative unintended consequences and preserve the "collegiate model" of sports.
Preliminary statements about what those parameters might look like have caused critics and lawmakers to accuse the NCAA of stalling without a genuine interest in creating change. Politicians at the state and federal levels have continued to push forward with legislation that could go into effect as early as this coming summer in some places, keeping pressure on the NCAA to act soon.
The NCPA published a white paper last week arguing that the NCAA and its member schools' track record and inherent conflicts of interest make them unfit to regulate a marketplace for college athletes. The report offers specific suggestions on how new rules should look, such as creating financial literacy programs for college athletes and allowing athletes to create and sell group licenses for use of their names, images and likenesses to third parties such as television networks or in video-game makers.
The NCPA believes it should represent athletes in future discussions about their group licensing rights and set up a certification process to agents who want to work with college athletes. Huma said the NCPA published its paper to show lawmakers and others that there were well-researched alternatives to what the NCAA will propose.
"We want to make sure the players have control over their rights as opposed to the NCAA or the colleges having that control," Huma said. "We set up the oversight board to inform players so they can make these decisions."
Huma assembled an 18-member volunteer board composed of lawyers, economists, sports executives and former college athletes to serve as experts making sure athletes are fairly represented if new opportunities to make money are created. Lewis, who worked on licensing deals for the Olympics before overseeing NCAA championships, said he doesn't have a specific role on the board but intends to help however he is needed.
"He's not trying to destroy college sports," Lewis said of Huma. "He's not trying to end what we all enjoy watching. He's just trying to say someone needs to be an advocate for the young men and women playing. No one else is in that role."
Lewis said the growing coffers of the NCAA didn't play a significant role in his decision to leave the organization. He now runs a small business in Montana. The former Georgia football player and son of a college coach said he witnessed the demands on student-athletes grow massively, though, as conferences added more games and commitments to fill the demand for television programming.
He said he fought to keep from putting any more burden on athletes and provide added support for them and their families during his stint inside the organization. He said he "didn't see a lot of answers" coming from the college sports leaders trying to solve their current problem. Now, he's taking a different approach.
"If you go back 30 or 40 years to all the ways pro sports tried to be financially successful and compared that to college sports, you didn't check all those boxes. There were legitimately differences," Lewis said. "Then, you could say the focus was an academic-oriented situation. But in this drive for revenue now, the boxes line up the same. Colleges are doing everything that pro sports leagues are doing to make money. So how come you're treating the participants radically different? You can't justify it."