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After a sophomore season that saw him rush for 1,785 yards and earn an invitation to Manhattan as a Heisman Trophy finalist, former Northwestern running back Darnell Autry was approached by Bill Bindley, a film director and Northwestern graduate, with a unique opportunity: Would he like to play a part in Bindley’s new movie, a thriller set to film in Rome during the school’s spring break?
Of course, said Autry, a theater major and aspiring actor. But I should probably run the idea past Northwestern’s compliance office, he added, which would then forward the request to the NCAA.
What unfolded amid Autry’s quest to pursue a role in the film — titled The Eighteenth Angel — while maintaining his college eligibility seems remarkably timely given the ongoing and often ferocious debate over an NCAA student-athlete’s rights to his or her own name, image and likeness, which has quickly become the rare political cause uniting both sides of the aisle.
“I wasn’t trying to prove a point,” said Autry, who will make an appearance before the Wildcats’ game Friday against Ohio State (8: 30 p.m. ET, BTN) with the Amway Coaches Poll Trophy, which is awarded every year in conjunction with American Football Coaches Association to the winner of the College Football Playoff.
“I wasn’t trying to be this poster boy for fighting the NCAA. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do in terms of my craft. And they weren’t going to let me. I’m 18, 19 years old. I just want to contribute to my football team and do my acting craft. After a while, you start thinking, ‘Hold up, this stuff’s not really making sense.’”
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Late last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsome, a Democrat, signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which is designed to allow student-athletes to profit off their likeness through endorsement deals. Nearly simultaneously, a Democratic legislator in the Florida House of Representatives filed HB 251, which if enacted would allow “students participating in intercollegiate athletics to receive specified compensation.” Similar bills have been filed in New York and South Carolina.
“People should get the benefit of the value they create in America,” Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted on Oct. 2. “The @NCAA has devised a system where predominantly young, black adult student-athletes create value at huge cost to their bodies. Then, predominantly old, white administrators see the benefit. BS!”
On Wednesday, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said “something is seriously awry” with the current NCAA model. “The reality is Congress is going to act,” he added. “We’re coming for you. We’re coming to help these athletes.”
Twenty-three years ago, Autry’s case provided an early test case for the central thrust of the current debate: Autry wanted to profit — if more in experience and publicity than in economic terms — off his talent and ability, and even then as an actor and theater major and not as a running back.
At the same time, Autry’s name and image were used in highlight videos celebrating Northwestern’s celebrated run to the Rose Bowl. The video, titled Taking the Purple to Pasadena, sold for about $20, with profits going to the school’s athletics department, as the Chicago Tribune pointed out at the time.
“That is exactly a student-athlete’s name and image being used to endorse a product,” said Pete Rush, one of three Chicago-based attorneys who handled Autry’s case against the NCAA. “How is that permissible? And there’s only one answer: Because the NCAA’s getting the money, not the player.”
Even still, the NCAA at first stonewalled, causing the part offered to Autry to be cut substantially, and then declined the request, telling Autry the opportunity could be viewed as providing Northwestern with a recruiting advantage and that if he appeared in the film he would lose his final two seasons of eligibility.
“Those things were on my mind but I also felt like the right thing would be to do my craft,” Autry said. “The right thing is to do what I want to do in terms of my training and my life goals. So that part of it was unwavering.”
In the wake of the NCAA’s decision, Autry was connected through a friend with Rush, Maureen Ward Kirby and Michael Abernathy, attorneys then of the Chicago firm Bell, Boyd & Lloyd. This isn’t right, they told Autry.
“He came in and told us his story, and I was blown away. And I was mad,” said Rush, now a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig. “All the things that are being talked about now, everything that’s being restricted, every student that’s in the band can play in a wedding and get paid, and they don’t cease to be an amateur or lose their band scholarship.
“The punchline of the case that really resonated with the press was, he can’t be a student because he’s an athlete. We kept it that simple. That was very powerful. It took off like wildfire.”
Autry’s legal team eventually brought his case in front of the Circuit Court of Cook County, asking the court to block the NCAA from forcing Autry to forfeit his remaining eligibility. The court filed a temporary restraining order so he could accept the role; three days later, an NCAA administrative review allowed Autry to act in the movie under the stipulation that he not be compensated financially for his part, though the producers could pay for his flight to Rome and lodging during filming.
“It was an unbelievable experience. It was disappointing only because it could’ve been handled differently,” said Autry, who recently wrote a short film, Man-I-Fest Destiny, and plans to debut next month a podcast discussing sports and entertainment.
“After that happened to me and I started reading and looking at other things that were going on around the NCAA, I started feeling like, ‘Well, it shouldn’t matter what it is. You should be able to work and do the things you want to do.’
“These kids sacrifice a lot to their universities, to their teams. For the NCAA, it seems like, to have rules that may be old and antiquated, you’re running into a lot more different scenarios and situations that I’m sure they didn’t face in the earlier days.”