One of the bedrock principles of our capitalist arrangement is that people have the ability to use what ability they have to make a buck for themselves, however that may be. We can debate about how that plays out in reality across multiple levels of society, but for the purposes of this article, let’s accept that as more or less true.
There’s only so long that any person or entity can live in defiance of that fundamental truth, and for years, the NCAA flew near the sun on wings of wax, presumably harvested from unpaid student athletes. They profited greatly from the entertainment provided by college sports, all while providing compensation in the form of scholarships and stipends that were a fraction of the value gained. Now it would appear that, like Icarus before them, their luck has run out.
In light of a narrow but significant Supreme Court ruling against them, one that experts foresee as a harbinger of the end of the current college athletics model, the NCAA rolled out policies related to name, image and likeness (NIL) rules that would permit students to monetize their brand, for lack of a better word, in lieu of actually paying players for the games they play. That means star players have a chance to become a business unto themselves, and like any good business, that means having trademarks in place.
University of Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz became the first athlete to break the seal, announcing that he’d begun the process of filing a trademark on a personal logo; you can get a look at it here. Aesthetically speaking, it’s hardly inspired; every athlete has something that incorporates the letters of their name and possibly jersey number, to the point that none of them really stand out from one another. But that’s neither here nor there; the clearly important thing is that a current college athlete now has a trademark in the works, just like any other person could do if they so choose.
There are critiques to be made outside of the IP aspects of this story; the big name college players will undoubtedly benefit from being able to market merchandise, but what about the guys who are contributing to the team and the product that aren’t stars and household names? The option for trademarks is available, but are those marks and products that fans want? This isn't the schools choosing to pay players for the income they're earning for the school; they're simply permitting athletes to accept money from outside sources, while keeping that income for themselves.
Setting those concerns aside, it’s great to see that some athletes will be able to capitalize on their intellectual property in a way that any brand or business has been able to for centuries. There’s still no shortage of issues with the NCAA, but for the moment, it’s a step in the right direction.