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What the NCAA likeness ruling means for Utah, BYU and college sports

Players say the time is now to start profiting off their fame and popularity, while coaches and administrators aren’t as certain, worry about collateral damage

Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri (93) celebrates in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
FILE - Brigham Young Cougars defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri (93) celebrates in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. BYU won 30-27 in overtime.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After working at a school-sponsored summer football camp for youngsters a few years ago, BYU defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri got his first paycheck and did the quick math in his head.

“I could have gone to McDonald’s and made more,” he said. “It wasn’t worth the time I put into it, how little I got from it.”

If a proposed rule change that would allow college athletes such as El-Bakri, a walk-on until last December, to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness goes through, the former Brighton High star could theoretically make a lot more.

“I could go back to my own community, where I’m a little more known, put my own name on the camp, and maybe do a lot better for myself,” he said. “This new rule could potentially help everyone, and not just big-name players.”

The NCAA Board of Governors voted unanimously Tuesday to allow amateur athletes to cash in on their fame and popularity, saying that the governing body for college athletics “must embrace change to provide the best possible experience for college athletes.”

The NCAA would like to see the changes take place no later than January 2021 — not soon enough for El-Bakri to benefit, but an “awesome thing” nevertheless, he surmises.

Utah senior defensive end Bradlee Anae, a likely NFL draft pick in April, can relate.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) throws an interception under pressure from Utah Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (6) during the first half of an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
FILE - Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) throws an interception under pressure from Utah Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (6) during the first half of an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“I think it’s a good thing,” Anae said. “It is a new area for NCAA sports and I think it’s a big step to the future of college football and the players in general. … It is not easy to come into a college program and make a name for yourself. But yeah, it is a step in the right direction.”

BYU coach Kalani Sitake was not made available to the media after practice Tuesday — the head coach only speaks to reporters on Mondays and immediately after games during the season — but said on Oct. 7 after California’s Fair Pay for Play legislation that sparked the NCAA into action passed that he was in favor of doing anything possible to benefit student-athletes.

“It seems like that it is going to be something that is going to show itself more as time goes on,” he predicted of the California bill.

BYU’s athletic department administrators did not respond to a request for comment.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he hasn’t had time to study the ruling and doesn’t know enough about it to comment.

“Give me a little bit (of time) to study it,” he said after practice Tuesday.

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan called the decision “an important step” in making NCAA policies benefit student-athletes.

“There remains an extremely complicated set of challenges to be navigated to create a system that provided opportunities for student-athletes while maintaining fair and balanced competition within the collegiate model,” Harlan said. “We will continue to monitor developments and prepare to embrace all new relevant bylaws and policies to ensure the well-being of our student-athletes.”

BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb, a former head coach at Southern Utah University, said he supports any rule that helps student-athletes and their families but worries about the collateral damage as well.

“Any direction that we can continue to move toward that provides whatever revenue might be coming in and use that for the athletes in a way that still matches the amateur model, I would be in support of that,” he said.

Lamb said the rule could create a bigger gap between the haves and have-nots of college football, especially in recruiting where the Power Five conference schools already have distinct advantages and could potentially get more due to their popularity and larger fan bases.

“I think in that case, BYU is now artificially one of the have-nots because it was left out of the Power Five,” Lamb said. “But the market potentially with the BYU fan base being nationwide can be an advantage for us once players can get more recognition and compensation. That could be a real game-changer for BYU.”

Former BYU standout Reno Mahe made a similar claim when the Deseret News polled five former Cougar football stars earlier this month and found that four of the five were in favor of the rule change. Only former Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer spoke against it.

Lamb also worries that using student-athletes to endorse products or services for pay could backfire because college fan bases can be “fickle” at times.

“I hate to see guys at this developmental stage in their lives be subject to that kind of ebb and flow of popularity,” he said. “I think if there is some way to make it more equitable toward those who make the team and participate on the team, rather than just the stars, I would be in favor of that.”

BYU senior safety Austin Lee, who has two children, said he doesn’t know how much a rule change would benefit the average scholarship player, aside from the ability to profit from conducting camps and perhaps individualized training sessions in their hometowns where their name might hold more weight.

“Anything that helps players, yeah, I could get behind that,” he said. “But it is probably too far away for me to benefit personally.”

El-Bakri said a lot of people don’t realize that some scholarship players don’t pocket their entire scholarship checks.

“A lot of people on our team could really benefit,” he said. “Our team is really interesting because we have a lot of Pacific Islanders who have family overseas. A big chunk of their scholarship checks go to their families, even though it isn’t a lot. If they had another source of income, that would be awesome.”