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The ridiculousness of name, image, and likeness

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Spoiler: college football players already get paid.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler Testifies Before Senate Oversight Hearing Photo by Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

Whether you think that college athletes should be allowed to get paid — I’m sorry, “profit off their name, image, and likeness” — the debate would be much, much, much healthier if it didn’t include nonsense like this:

So, here’s why this entire debate is ridiculous. I don’t know if anybody heard, but Ole Miss got punished by the NCAA a few years back for doing pretty much exactly what Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi), an Ole Miss alum, said that he would want to do if he were a local businessman. Meantime, the FBI launched an entire investigation into Adidas offering de facto paid sponsorships to college basketball recruits, conditioned on them attending schools that have apparel deals with Adidas, and there have long been rumors that Nike does exactly the same thing (and Under Armour probably does, too.) And SB Nation’s own Steven Godfrey wrote an entire freaking article about how the process of college football players getting paid works.

The morality of college athletes getting paid isn’t the point here and never has been. This is akin to any debate about various “vices” in society, like gambling or drugs. Nobody is dumb enough to approach the topic of marijuana legalization on the assumption that nobody currently uses marijuana (okay, there’s probably somebody out there who does.) Instead, any rational debate starts with the assumption that these things are already happening and centers on (a) whether we should tacitly signal that we as a society find this behavior acceptable by legalizing it, and (b) how to regulate it, should we decide to make it legal.

And this certainly isn’t to turn Anchor of Gold into a political forum, except that it is because basically everything’s political now. But the debate over paying college athletes (by which we mean, almost exclusively, football and men’s basketball players, and then really only a tiny fraction of the overall pool) is stupid from the jump because it often starts with an assumption that the current prohibition actually stops anyone from getting paid.

Debating the morality of paying players is irrelevant; instead, we should probably just assume that they’re going to get paid whether we say they can or not, and debate the merits of the current “bag man” system versus an above-board one. And to be clear, the NCAA’s approach to this is probably going to end more like marijuana — where legalization by popular vote has led to an unregulated morass of products far more potent than the “marijuana” any of us ever imagined, packaged in a way that explicitly appeals to teenagers (hello, edibles!) — than like gambling (where legalization through traditional channels comes along with the business being regulated like crazy.) How we’re going to regulate this seems like a much more productive discussion than debating the morality of the thing, which ultimately is going to lead to the absolutists winning.