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Jeffrey Kessler . Condoleezza Rice . Tye Gonser ?There are a lot of names involved in the debate around paying college athletes. This week, a new one was added to the list, even if it is one that most won’t recognize.Gonser, a Southern California lawyer at a 10-lawyer corporate firm that bears his name , has put forth an idea endorsed by Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen to pay student-athletes for the use of their names and likenesses. The 39-page proposal is designed to protect the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s amateur model, while promoting graduation for student-athletes.Slickly branded “ Fairplay 4 NCAA ,” Gonser’s proposal creates a nonprofit, “clearinghouse” entity that will work as a go-between for student-athletes and corporate sponsors. Upon entering college, athletes will have the choice to give the would-be clearinghouse the right to negotiate sponsorship deals on their behalf with certain brands.The clearinghouse would cut deals with sponsors and hold the sponsorship money in accounts for athletes. The money would only be doled out to players who graduate from college within eight years. Money collected for athletes who don’t graduate would be given to a general scholarship fund that supports non-athletes’ tuition and other programs to promote college attendance in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.The plan circumvents the need for college athletes to hire agents or interact with brands, both of which have been at the epicenter of many of the recent scandals involving student-athletes finding back doors to get paid . That was a key motivator for Gonser. A former college baseball player at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, Gonser previously worked as an in-house lawyer at a sports marketing agency and said he disliked the role money often played in recruiting athletes.“As much as I understand about this business and this industry, I’m aware there is probably not a perfect solution, and by no means do I think this plan is perfect,” Gonser told The American Lawyer in a Tuesday interview. “Our whole goal is to present something that we think is relatively workable and can help move the conversation forward in a positive and productive manner, which we don’t think is happening to date.”Talk of changing the NCAA’s amateur model has ramped up since last September, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York unveiled fraud and bribery indictments for 10 individuals working in college basketball, alleging a corruption scheme that involved coaches, agents and shoe company executives.In response, the NCAA chartered a committee led by Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, who put out a report in April that suggested abandoning the “one-and-done” rule forcing basketball players to attend at least one year of college before entering the annual National Basketball Association player draft. The proposal also suggested allowing more upfront interactions between college players and agents, as well as allowing those players to declare for the NBA draft and then come back to school.The committee’s proposals were met with some criticism , mostly due to what some perceived as a muted stance toward compensating athletes for the use of their names and likenesses. Rice defended the report against that critique in a subsequent interview , saying there were pending legal challenges to the NCAA’s rules that would need to be cleared up before the commission could propose a model for how players would be paid.“There is a legal framework that has to be determined, but name, image and likeness—athletes are going to have to be able to benefit from it,” Rice told USA Today.The most pressing legal challenge on that front is being led by Winston & Strawn partner Jeffrey Kessler, a veteran litigator who also serves co-executive chairman of the firm.That case, a multidistrict litigation being heard in the U.S. District Court for Northern District of California, is an antitrust challenge to the NCAA’s restriction on payments of athletes. The suit depicts the scholarship process as an unfair cap on wages; an issue set for a bench trial later this year before U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom , which NCAA tax records show received nearly $5.9 million from the registered nonprofit in 2015-16, is representing the organization in that case. ( Former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler , now co-chair of the white-collar defense and investigations practice at Latham & Watkins , which received nearly $7.3 million from the NCAA in 2015-16, is a member of the NCAA committee on basketball reform.)Gonser said that suit before Wilken may threaten the NCAA’s longtime amateur model and encourage some schools not to offer scholarship-level sports.

Tye Gonser
“I think they could frankly win, but it would also ruin college sports,” Gonser said. “A lot of the best institutions in the country would probably say they won’t do it, and they’ll just have club sports.”Gonser said his plan could be easier for the NCAA to swallow because it would benefit all parties involved: the NCAA, schools and players. The revenues Gonser envisions his system bringing about could be from a rebirth of college video games and from individual licensing deals for stars.That money would be split up differently depending on the type of sponsorship deal. For broad group licensing agreements, a “player pool” of all the players of any sport would receive 50 percent of the revenue; the clearinghouse takes 25 percent; the NCAA gets 15 percent; and the general scholarship fund gets 10 percent. Individual deals send 50 percent of the money to the individual athlete; 25 percent to the clearinghouse; 10 percent to the NCAA; 10 percent to the player pool; and 10 percent to the scholarship fund.Gonser said he went public with the proposal after finding hesitation among the NCAA’s vested interests to his pitch through more regular channels. He said he had spoken with athletic directors in four of the five collegiate power conferences. They were interested in the idea, but none were supportive enough to sponsor it as a legitimate challenge to current NCAA rules. Gonser now hopes public support and pressure may motivate them to act.“It just feels like nobody wants to be the person who stands up first in that world and be the champion behind it, which I understand,” Gonser said. “Unfortunately, the NCAA tends to be a very reactive institution.”Gonser said he worked on his proposal on Sundays when he wasn’t doing his typical legal work: representing business owners who often happen to be professional athletes. Frustrated at the slow pace of his proposal, he hired an intern, then-University of Southern California Gould School of Law student Bryan Bitzer , who is set to take a first-year lawyer job at Los Angeles-based Weinberg Gonser in August.As for Rosen’s involvement, Gonser said he was introduced to the former University of California, Los Angeles star when Rosen was a freshman at the school. Gonser’s office is close to the UCLA campus and he said he became something of a mentor to the controversial Rosen .The two men began talking early last year about challenges to the NCAA amateur model, possibly sparked by a decision Rosen had to make: whether to forego his senior year at UCLA or become eligible for the NFL draft. The Cardinals eventually drafted Rosen with the 10th overall selection in late April. Had Gonser’s system been in place during Rosen’s college career, Gonser said the star quarterback may have stayed for his senior year.“He’s wildly intelligent,” Gonser said. “But what really drew me to him as we built a relationship was that he really cares about people and social issues in a way that I don’t see many people in general do; especially not 20-year-olds.”

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