California Lawmakers Lead A Freedom Revolution For College Student-Athletes

Not often does Sacramento get it right in the eyes of the defenders of liberty. A bill allowing athletes at public and private California colleges to earn money from endorsements, however, is likely to earn their approval.

Senate Bill 206, the Fair Pay to Play Act, which sailed through the Senate by a 31-5 margin, would not, says Sports Illustrated, “convert college athletes into full-time employees, part-time employees, independent contractors, vendors or any other conceivable classification of university ‘worker.’” Their status as students would not change. But beginning in 2023, student-athletes would be free to “profit from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) in commercial products.”

And why not? “Everyone,” says Pacific Research Institute senior fellow Wayne Winegarden, “makes money from these athletes, except the athletes themselves.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a membership organization of more than 1,100 schools that governs most collegiate sports, rakes in $1 billion a year in revenue. Most of it is distributed to member schools and coaches. But the student-athletes who create the value aren’t allowed to tap into this fortune (though many do benefit from scholarships).

The NCAA jealously guards this arrangement. President Mark Emmert has “implied that if the bill becomes law as it is written, California schools could face the prospect of being prohibited from participating in NCAA championships,” USA Today has reported.

While the NCAA has a reputation for fanaticism in preserving amateur purity, its critics believe there’s another motive behind its opposition to SB 206. They say the organization fears athletes will cut into the NCAA’s revenue streams. Wealth, however, is dynamic, not static. Removing the restrictions on players monetizing their names, images and likenesses will create a larger economic pie. It would not siphon dollars directly from the NCAA fisc.

Of course, there are concerns the bill will produce “inequality” among student-athletes. It’s an overheated and useless concern of our age, and the reality is the financial opportunities won’t necessarily be limited to star athletes in the most prominent sports. Reporting in The Athletic, Robert Litan writes that “local businesses, not just national name brands, would be interested in running commercials and giving other NIL-earning opportunities to multiple athletes on college teams.”

UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, for instance, has a perfect floor exercise that Litan says “has been viewed by almost 44 million viewers on YouTube.” Ladies gymnastics does not enjoy the popularity of the “major” college sports, yet free of NCAA shackles, Ohashi’s earnings from just that single video could conceivably rival the endorsement dollars earned by collegiate stars playing marquee sports such as football and basketball.

Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from North Carolina, has introduced a similar bill in Congress. It’s conceivable the mounting pressure at the federal and state levels is motivating the NCAA to change its rules. It’s “just an appetizer,” writes former Los Angeles Times sports columnist Chris Dufresne of SB 206 in College Sports Maven. And because it won’t immediately go into effect, the legislation gives “the NCAA time to reconcile the stone-cold reality and come up with a compensation solution for which it can take full credit.”

Late last month, The National Law Review reported that “Emmert has requested the two committees postpone consideration of the proposed legislation” so the NCAA could assemble “a working group of school presidents and athletics administrators who will be reviewing the current prohibition on NCAA athletes earning income from the use of their names, images, and likenesses.”

Should the NCAA’s response to the bills be inadequate, it might inspire innovative free-market alternatives to the NCAA to emerge.

In one such model, college sports would become “the province of private, alumni-associated affinity clubs who have exclusive permission to use the name and logos of universities in their marketing,” says Bob Maistros, a Reagan-Bush speechwriter writing in the North Star National. No state, federal or university money would be spent, and school officials would not be involved in the operations.

Under Maistros’ plan, alumni would manage the teams, hire, recruit and set pay. He said it “would be nice” though not necessary, for management to favor students, and recruit athletes qualified to attend the schools.

To address complaints the athletes would be nothing more than for-hire professionals, Maistros suggests the associations develop their own post-secondary programs, which could include “the usual courses in sports management, kinesiology and physical therapy, along with remedial courses.”

Some purists might like the idea on paper but not necessarily in practice and would prefer the NCAA simply lift its cruel restrictions. That Sacramento is leading an effort to liberate student-athletes when its recent history is to quash worker freedom is welcome news.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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