October 16, 2019
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California dunks on the NCAA

Keith Srakocic | AP
Keith Srakocic | AP

The State of California is forcing the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to confront an obvious truth faster than it might like: clinging to the current compensation model for college athletics is, well, amateurish.

Revenues for the NCAA, the governing organization of U.S. college athletics made up of over 1,000 schools, topped $1.1 billion in 2017. A portion of these profits undoubtedly flow to student athletes in the form of scholarships and student assistance. But the notion that a free education is a fair trade for otherwise free labor — especially when players are prohibited from capitalizing on their skills and popularity, and considering the level of profit involved — has long ceased to pass the straight face test.

Earlier this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new state law that allows college athletes to sign endorsement deals and profit from their likeness.

To be clear, this bill and this current conversation aren’t about schools paying student athletes to play sports. It’s about allowing these young men and women to profit financially off their skills and marketability, as the NCAA and schools have done for years. It’s a matter of equity.

“Other college students with a talent, whether it be literature, music, or technological innovation, can monetize their skill and hard work,” Newsom said. “Student athletes, however, are prohibited from being compensated while their respective colleges and universities make millions, often at great risk to athletes’ health, academics and professional careers.”

Tim Nevius, a lawyer and former investigator for the NCAA, is now the executive director of the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, an organization that assists student athletes in legal disputes involving the NCAA. He argues that the NCAA clings to the notion of players being unpaid amateurs “for the purpose of maintaining power and money.” It’s hard for us to disagree.

“I think it’s especially relevant to note that this whole enterprise is entirely professional, except the players are not paid,” Nevius told NBC News.

To be fair, it’s not as if the NCAA has proven completely unwilling to engage in this discussion, at least recently. In May, the organization created a working group to look into the issues surrounding “student-athlete name, image and likeness.” That was a step in the right direction, but one even the NCAA acknowledges was a result of related legislation proposed around the country. Clearly, efforts to shake up the system like the one underway in California have the NCAA’s attention, and that’s a good thing.

“As a membership organization, the NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level through the NCAA’s rules-making process,” read a Sept. 30 statement from the NCAA. “Unfortunately, this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses, and not just in California.”

We don’t want chaos in college sports. And of course, state-by-state piecemeal attempts to legislate this issue will not provide an ultimate, unifying solution. But as California is proving, these efforts can be a shove in the right direction, even if that means potential legal action.

“We will consider next steps in California while our members move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education,” the NCAA statement continued.

The California law, which does not take effect until 2023, might prove to be a step too far in terms of the actual policy and what it could mean for the country’s most populous state to go its own way on this issue. But the move has reminded the country how unbalanced the current college sports compensation structure is. Now the ball is in the NCAA’s court, with a final report from the working group due this month.

NBA star Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers has enthusiastically welcomed the new California law, which Newsom signed while filming for James’ HBO show. James’ 14-year-old son is a highly touted basketball prospect in California.

“NCAA, you got the next move,” James said recently on Instagram. “We can solve this for everyone.”

 



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