Paying College Athletes: California Takes on the NCAA

California has taken a major step towards giving student-athletes the rights they deserve. On September 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which lets college athletes to make money off of their name and likeness. This would allow them to make money off of things like jersey sales, endorsements, and autographs.

The bill was passed overwhelmingly by both the California House and Senate, and was supported by the likes of LeBron James. It’s a groundbreaking measure for college athletics. No other state has come close to  permitting college athletes to make money off their likeness. A change this massive can let student-athletes get in on the massive college sports industry, and finally let them get their fair share of their work.

After all, their work is making some people very, very rich. The NCAA as an institution alone brings in more than a billion dollars in revenue, most of that from television and marketing rights. And in 2016, college football or basketball coaches were the highest paid public employee in 39 states. That year, University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh brought home $9 million, becoming the highest-paid coach in college football.

And while those coaches feast, some players struggle to eat as they pour their lives into their sports. NCAA rules say student-athletes can only put in 20 hours a week towards practice commitments, but one study—done by the NCAA itself—says many athletes work at least 30 hours a week, and often more than 40, on their sport.

This bill would help to at least provide some kind of compensation for their actions. It’d also drastically change the landscape and structure of college sports in America.

That’s precisely why the NCAA—and folks like former Heisman winner —aren’t too happy about this possibility. Tebow says that, unlike team sports, the bill exemplifies a “selfish culture, where it’s all about us,” and would ruin what’s special about college sports. But while players are putting their bodies on the line while going hungry – and see no pay from it at all –  it’s hard to buy that this is selfishness, and not survival.

As this so-called selfish bill made its way to Newsom’s desk, so too did a letter from the NCAA, vehemently opposing the legislation. That letter, produced by the association’s Board of Governors, lists a variety of threats and consequences the NCAA could impose on California colleges.

Allowing student-athletes to profit off their labor would give California schools an “unfair recruiting advantage” that could make them ineligible for NCAA competitions. For a state with some of the most successful and prominent athletic programs, that would be disastrous not just for those schools, but also the NCAA itself.

If the NCAA follows through with its threat, schools like UCLA and USC, historically powerhouses in basketball and football respectively, would no longer play in the tournaments that define their sports – and the schools would miss out on the revenue and prestige.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, State Senator Nancy Skinner, says that those kinds of exclusions on behalf of the NCAA would fail to hold up in court, given the multiple losses the association has taken in anti-trust lawsuits in the past. In 2014, their rules and bylaws were found to be in violation of federal antitrust laws, and back in the 1980s, the NCAA lost another antitrust lawsuit, which said that their television plan violated federal laws. On their part, the NCAA alleges that the bill is “unconstitutional,” though, as Yahoo News puts it, they don’t really describe how, exactly, they plan to back up that argument.

The NCAA’s opposition is thanks to the amount of control they would have to give up should players be allowed to get a paycheck. Letting college athletes to make money off of their own labor – especially significant as almost all student-athletes across every sport don’t get  professional contracts – takes away the NCAA’s ability to dictate how student-athletes live their lives. The NCAA relishes this control – and has threatened players simply for starting a side business or even winning a car in a promotional contest.

This law would also open the game up to broader labor laws, including unionization, which the NCAA has  fiercely opposed in the past. That fight, like the one for payment, is also about bringing dignity and basic rights to people who put their bodies and futures at risk, while the profits of their labor are funneled upwards towards their schools, conferences, and the NCAA.

California can lead the way as millions of people watch and billions of dollars made. Permitting student-athletes to make money is not just good for the state’s reputation – it’s the right thing to do. Other states should follow California and take that step.