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Sports

Thomas: So Jack, what about those jerseys in the bookstore?

| Monday, March 1, 2021

“As those rules are developed, it is our strong desire that student-athletes be allowed to benefit directly from allowing their name, image and performance history to be used in the game”.

Brave words, Jack.

When Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick came out with that quote, the news spread like wildfire — no Notre Dame in the new EA Sports College Football game? One of the biggest brands in college sports taken away? Jokes rolled in — would EA basically ignore it and create some pseudo-Irish team? Some keyboard warriors sarcastically suggested using the “South Bend Leprechauns” as a moniker, essentially bypassing Notre Dame’s resistance to their use of the logo. All of that is an interesting point, and how the production of the game proceeds remains to be seen, with a lot of the details likely to be worked out after the upcoming name, image and likeness (NIL) vote that is expected to make revolutionary changes as to how collegiate athletes can benefit from their personal brands. 

But let’s revisit the brave words from Mr. Swarbrick. To be clear, before I go any further, I think the individual decision was a great move. The NIL vote is a much-needed change in college sports, as the inability for college athletes to capitalize on personal branding opportunities was ridiculous, and it led to inconsistent rulings from the NCAA on related issues. One such inconsistent ruling was directly related to Notre Dame, when women’s basketball legend and Final Four hero Arike Ogunbowale was permitted to be on Dancing with the Stars. The stated reasoning behind this was that Ogunbowale’s appearance was not directly related to her basketball career, although it was evident her fame from hitting consecutive buzzer-beaters to help the Irish win a championship was helpful — to say the least — in generating some of these opportunities.

Notre Dame Athletics
Graduate Student quarterback Ian Book fires a pass downfield against South Florida on Sept. 19 at Notre Dame Stadium.

So yes, I think it’s good that Notre Dame withdrew, at least for now, from the EA Sports game. But, let’s not ignore the hypocrisy that is simply dripping from Jack Swarbrick’s comments. It’s easy for Swarbrick to issue a nice-sounding quote about putting the students first and ascend to his almighty throne as a champion for student rights, but isn’t Notre Dame just as guilty as pretty much any other program in the country at taking advantage of NIL?

What about all those football jerseys in the bookstore? Is it a coincidence that the No. 12 football jersey is so prominently displayed and the best-seller? Does that bear no relation to a certain No. 12 who became the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame football history this past fall? No? Just a random No. 12? What a coincidence. Much like EA Sports had to shelve their NCAA football game for having game characters like “Notre Dame Quarterback No. 12.” It’s not fooling anyone. Everyone buying the jersey knows they are buying an Ian Book jersey. 

A quick visit to the bookstore also reveals a few other of the more common numbers present on the purchasable football jerseys: No. 6 (definitely not related to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame’s star linebacker and likely first-round pick), and No. 11 (certainly not transfer wide receiver Ben Skowronek). Notre Dame is directly capitalizing on the fame — or at least campus-wide popularity — of their top athletes on their most prominent athletic team. Jerseys are a clear and direct implication of using name, image and likeness without compensating athletes. But for Jack Swarbrick, video games is where he draws the line? Was it a profit calculation — the risk of getting involved in a potential NIL lawsuit prior to the vote wasn’t worth being in the game. The Notre Dame brand transcends EA Sports, and it certainly doesn’t need to be in the game to survive in the modern era, despite some arguments that it could harm recruiting. So Swarbrick isn’t exactly making some monumental sacrifice for his student-athletes here, and let’s not just look over all the tangible “coincidences” he could take out of the bookstore that harm the NIL movement directly. 

That’s a lot of coincidences for someone who’s trying to plant his flag as a student-first guy who doesn’t want a video game taking advantage of his athletes. The hypocrisy is particularly noticeable when you consider the upcoming company, MOGL, co-founded by former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush, dedicated to providing a digital agency for college athletes to maximize their brand-building opportunities. Wimbush and his co-founder — and fellow Notre Dame graduate — Ayden Syal, have made appearances at Notre Dame events to promote the company. As that company, looking to empower athletes in the NIL era, gains publicity, while being spearheaded by two Notre Dame graduates, including a former quarterback, Swarbrick’s comments ring even more hollow. 

So please save us your hero-talk, your made-for-press comments designed to make it sound like your for the athletes. And maybe focus on what you could have already done to help in the name, image and likeness revolution — for starters maybe taking those “12” Notre Dame football jerseys off the shelves.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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