A new California law that will allow collegiate athletes to profit from the use of their name or images has fueled a rush of new legislation in other states that hope to allow their own athletes to make money while still in college.
California’s bill, which takes effect in 2023, will allow student athletes to hire agents and to sign endorsement deals. None would be paid directly by the schools themselves, a key distinction that backers of similar bills in other states have used to anchor their legislation.
“This is the beginning of a national movement, one that transcends geographic and partisan lines,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said when he signed the measure on Monday. “Colleges reap billions from these student athletes’ sacrifices and success but, in the same breath, block them from earning a single dollar. That’s a bankrupt model.”
The new bills are coming from both Democratic and Republican sponsors, marking a rare bipartisan moment that legislators across the country said would go a long way to addressing inequality and even racial injustice in sports.
“It is pretty strange to be citing California for anything. But it is a kind of beautifully bipartisan issue, because you have injustices, especially racial injustice,” said Nolan West, a Republican state representative in Minnesota who plans to introduce his own version of the bill next year.
West said he would appeal to his fellow Republicans to let the free market dictate the fallout: “These players can’t go into business with the skills they’ve developed over their lives because of this archaic law.”
Florida state Rep. Kionne McGhee, the Democratic minority leader who represents part of Miami-Dade County, is driving a similar bill in Tallahassee.
“It’s an antiquated system. Essentially what it’s doing is forcing students who are in their prime in sports out of the free market. This is all about fairness,” McGhee told CBS’s Miami affiliate.
Similar legislation has been introduced in Washington, Maryland and New York. South Carolina lawmakers said they would introduce a bill like California’s version next year. Legislators in Tennessee have filed a bill to create a fund to compensate college athletes after they graduate.
Both McGhee and West cited the case of Donald De La Haye, a kicker at the University of Central Florida who lost his NCAA eligibility in 2017 because he had made money selling advertising on his YouTube channel. In a statement at the time, the NCAA said De La Haye would have been able to continue selling ads on videos that did not show his athletic ability.
“It’s a ridiculous injustice,” West said. “The NCAA even profits off the likeness of the players in the video games.”
The NCAA, the PAC-12 Conference and the California State University system opposed the California version of the bill. The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
But in a letter to Newsom last month, the NCAA threatened what could become a legal showdown. It said the NCAA could declare California schools ineligible for its events, because giving players the right to earn money from endorsement deals would give California schools an unfair recruiting advantage.
Despite the threat, the California legislature passed its bill unanimously. Newsom signed the legislation earlier this week alongside one of its most prominent backers, LeBron James.
In a statement Monday, the PAC-12 Conference said the legislation would “have very significant negative consequences for our student-athletes and broader universities in California.”
“This legislation will lead to the professionalization of college sports and many unintended consequences related to this professionalism, imposes a state law that conflicts with national rules, will blur the lines for how California universities recruit student-athletes and compete nationally, and will likely reduce resources and opportunities for student-athletes in Olympic sports and have a negative disparate impact on female student-athletes,” the statement said.
Opponents say the new laws would cause damage to the current system, which provides scholarships and even spending money to thousands of student athletes across the country.
“College athletes are not employees. They are students. It’s that simple,” wrote Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, and Tom Burnett, who heads the Southland Conference, in a 2017 op-ed in The Denver Post. “The vast majority of student-athletes we see are serious about academics and sports. They know college athletics is preparing them for successful lives and careers because of the experiences they enjoy and the education they receive.”
Only about 2 percent of college football players will be drafted by NFL teams, and about the same percentage of college basketball players are signed by professional basketball teams.
But West, the Minnesota Republican, said paying athletes would both broaden the number of people who benefit from their talent during their college years, and incentivize more players to stay in school to actually earn their degree.
“A lot of high school stars, like king of the town who just tears it up, will never make it to the NFL,” West said. “The super good players who are real prospects for the professional leagues now do have an incentive to stay in school and get their degrees.”
The NCAA has been under mounting pressure to spread its wealth around, as college athletics have become a $14 billion a year industry. Thirty-eight schools around the country generate more than $100 million in sports revenue annually, according to data compiled by USA Today. The NCAA itself generated more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time in 2017.
But, seemingly aware that the dam was about to break, the NCAA earlier this year set up a working group to study potential changes to rules governing student athlete endorsement deals. That working group plans to finish its report by the end of October.
After that report comes out, federal legislation is likely. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), a standout wide receiver at Ohio State who went on to play for the Indianapolis Colts, plans to introduce a bill once he sees recommendations from the committee. Gonzalez is close with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, the committee’s co-chairman.
In March, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has introduced his own legislation similar to the California measure. Walker’s Student-Athlete Equity Act has yet to receive a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee.