California is leading the way towards economic justice for U.S. college athletes.
The California State Assembly unanimously passed the Fair Pay to Play Act recently. If Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the bill, or allows it to go into law without his signature, college athletes in California will be able to profit off of their own likeness while playing sports for their school.
The name of the bill is a bit of a misnomer. Universities in California wouldn’t actually be paying their athletes directly. Basically, the California law would mimic the Olympic model, allowing college athletes to benefit from use of their names, images and likenesses – like every other student at American colleges and universities (and every other American, for that matter). In effect, athletes could ink corporate sponsorship and endorsement deals like Olympic athletes can.
It’s not a radical concept and it certainly won’t end the popularity of college sports. The Olympics dumped the amateur model in 1988, allowing athletes to make money from their athletic ability and fame. And guess what? The world didn’t end! In fact, the Olympics are more popular than ever.
But this movement isn’t about popularity. It’s about basic fairness.
A few years back, civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch wrote this about the current National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) model:
“The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion. Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights. We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system.”
Well, the modern abolitionists are starting to gather.
California State Sen. Nancy Skinner sponsored the California bill.
“I don’t know of any other industry that can rely on a large set of people’s talent for which they deny them any earnings and all compensation,” said Skinner.
In an era of malignant partisanship, this bill to provide economic justice for college athletes unanimously passed the California Assembly. A similar bill unanimously passed the California Senate. Every Democrat and every Republican voted for it. Amazing.
Yet the NCAA continues to fight progressive change. The organization sent a letter to Newsom saying if this effort becomes law, California’s 58 NCAA schools would be banned from NCAA competitions.
The NCAA is fighting a losing battle. College athletics above the Division II and III levels is clearly entertainment sport, not education sport. Decisions are driven almost exclusively by commercial values.
Big-time college sports are a lucrative business. As but one example, college football’s 25 most valuable programs combined earn an average of $1.5 billion in profit on revenues of approximately $2.7 billion every year.
California won’t be alone in this fight. The South Carolina legislature could be next. South Carolina Sen. Marlon Kimpson and Rep. Justin Bamberg plan to file a similar bill when the South Carolina General Assembly reconvenes in January.
Similar proposals are also being considered in a few other states.
“The legislation passed in California is a sign of the times,” said Kimpson. “The NCAA is not an amateur sports league. This is a multibillion-dollar sports engine where everyone involved makes money except the players on the field who earn it.”
The hypocrisy in college athletics is the result of an untenable system that promotes the amateur myth and tries to suppress the fact that the young athletes that fill the seats at football stadiums and basketball arenas on our college campuses have significant market value.
Admittedly, developing a system in which athletes are put on a university’s payroll (and all that would likely entail, e.g., worker’s compensation, player unions, Title IX ramifications, etc.) would be complex. But allowing athletes to be paid by a sponsor to appear in an ad campaign, or simply to be paid to sign autographs at a local auto dealer for a couple hours, is pretty straightforward.
Why does this whole issue have to be so complicated?
The Olympic model is the quickest and easiest way to more fairly compensate college athletes. It’s not the complete solution but it’s a great start.
The NCAA’s antiquated amateurism model is dying, but it’s a very slow death. Adopting the Olympic model would allow the college sports system to spin more quickly toward economic justice.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of The Sports Reformers, Ego vs. Soul in Sports, and How We Can Save Sports.
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