One can view the NCAA in many ways. Here’s how I see it: An antiquated, venal institution clinging desperately to its waning power.
That’s a common survival tactic. Right now, it is doing so by fighting tooth and nail against the California “Fair Pay to Play” Act that was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom this past week.
The bill would allow collegiate athletes in the state, starting in 2023, to receive compensation for their name, image or likeness (NIL, in the vernacular) and also hire agents, without losing their collegiate eligibility. Please note, because this is important, and widely misconstrued: It has nothing to do with the schools themselves (58 of them in California) paying the athletes. That’s still against the rules.
NCAA president Mark Emmert, and his emissaries at the power conferences (including the Pac-12, keenly invested in the matter because of the four California schools in its membership), are clutching their pearls and predicting dire consequences if the bill is allowed to proceed. They appear ready to throw all of their vast resources at striking down this bill, which they see as the death knell of (hold your giggles) amateurism in college athletics.
It’s the exact wrong approach, which is hardly surprising; many of the NCAA’s tactics and hidebound beliefs are wrongheaded. The NCAA would be far better served to embrace the inevitable change that is coming, and mold it in a fashion that it can live with, rather than having it thrust upon them.
But when has the NCAA ever been proactive on such matters? It doesn’t seem to realize, or accept, that the momentum toward this sort of perfectly reasonable (and long overdue) compensation for college athletes has put it past the point of no return. The way I see it, this is an unstoppable movement, and the NCAA (and Pac-12) should get behind it before being trampled by it.
The California law will almost certainly be challenged in court, probably on the premise that it violates the “Commerce Clause” of the constitution. This would characterize the Act as interfering with interstate commerce, which individual states aren’t allowed to do.
But that could be mitigated by a congressional act that turns the California principle into federal law. Numerous states are already jumping on board with proposed laws similar to the one in California. There was one in Washington state earlier this year that was approved by a Senate committee, with a proviso: It wouldn’t go into effect until states with populations totaling 50 million passed similar laws. That was to keep Washington from being a lone wolf and suffering the potential repercussions. Well, guess what? The California law alone takes care of 39 million of that 50 million requirement.
This is, in fact, one of the few issues these days that is being embraced on both sides of the aisle. Republicans tend to view it as promoting free-market principles – let the athletes reap what the market will bear. And Democrats view it more as an equity issue, rectifying the injustice of a $14-billion industry that doesn’t fairly compensate the very workers upon whom the fortune is built.
I liken this whole debate to the way the power structure of the Olympic Games once fought to maintain its (equally faux) ideal of amateurism. When I was a kid, the popular wisdom was that allowing pros in the Olympics would be catastrophic – even when it was increasingly apparent that much of the rest of the world’s Olympic athletes were already being subsidized by their government, legally or not.
But starting with the “Dream Team” in 1992, the rules against professionalism in the Olympics slowly slipped away. That was supposed to be the end of the Olympics, according to the naysayers. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. The Olympics continue to thrive, and no one cares that the athletes are allowed to subsidize their training with commercial endorsements and jobs. In fact, it seems entirely proper.
I firmly believe that will be the same here, over time, if the California model prevails nationwide. Sure, there might very well be some unintended consequences, and those will have to be tweaked. It was wise to allow three years to think through things. But most of the dire fears are overblown or naive. It will lead to the professionalization of college sports? Get your head out of the sand. What it will do is regulate and move above board what already exists. It was French sportswriter Gaston Meyer who said in the 1950s about the subject of Olympic amateurism (as cited in a 2012 ESPN article), “Do not forbid what you can’t prevent.”
Many people say allowing players to cash in will give a huge, untenable advantage to the most powerful schools. How’s that working out now? Alabama and Clemson can be penciled in for the national title game just about every year. I think this could actually be an equalizer, because rabid alumni exist everywhere. They can offer packages to entice top prospects – legally, in this new world — in Boise or Lubbock or Pullman or wherever. Oh, and I’d expect star players in football and basketball to stay in school longer if they no longer need to go pro to make some money.
What about those who say – as the Pac-12 did in its official statement of opposition to the Fair Pay to Play Act – that the California law will likely “reduce resources and opportunities for student-athletes in Olympic sports and have a negative disparate impact on female student-athletes”?
I just don’t see it. Remember, the schools aren’t paying the players, so their budgets shouldn’t change appreciably, nor would their adherence to Title IX regulations. Supporters of the bill believe this will actually create new opportunities for women athletes, who don’t have lucrative pro careers waiting for them like men do. Wouldn’t it be great if someone like Katelyn Ohashi, the brilliant UCLA gymnast, could make a buck off her floor routine that went viral and made her a national sensation? I’d bet that Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor would have had plenty of opportunities come their way during their UW heyday.
Yes, there are a lot of unknowns, and some possible dangers, like rampant transferring as players chase the best offer.
But my suspicion is that after a sorting-out period, college athletics would proceed in a fashion that’s not much different than it is now – except one.
Athletes will finally have a chance to grab a share of the billion-dollar industry that is created on their sweat.