Last Monday marked a change in collegiate athletics as California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, allowing college athletes to earn money from outside parties through their name, image, and likeness. This allows athletes access to endorsement and sponsorship opportunities previously banned by NCAA regulations through the amateurism clause. The Act opens up myriad opportunities for profit, though it does restrict athletes from taking deals that compete with their school’s existing endorsements.
The Act comes after years of criticism of the NCAA for collecting billions of dollars while the athletes generating the revenue go penniless. Last year, the NCAA made about $900 million from March Madness alone, in stark contrast to the athletes who earned nothing for their involvement. The beneficiaries of this free labor are not exclusive to NCAA executives but extend to college coaches and the media, seemingly everyone involved but the players we all tune in to watch. The bill, which goes into effect in 2023, attacks this exploitative nature of college athletics and aims to give athletes agency over their image, but it does not come without backlash.
The Pac-12 Conference, which is home to multiple California universities, released a statement condemning the Act.
“The Pac-12 is disappointed in the passage of SB 206 [the Act] and believes it will have very significant negative consequences for our student-athletes and broader universities in California,” said Pac-12 Conference officials in a statement. “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.”
The state-by-state approach does raise some questions. For example, what does this mean for recruiting? As of now, it appears that California has a decisive advantage over other states that do not offer financial opportunity in exchange for an athlete’s commitment. Other states are sure to follow suit. New York and Florida have both introduced legislation that grants more protection and opportunity to college athletes. Both of these states’ bills offer similar formats allowing athletes to profit from their image, with New York adding an injured athlete fund to allow better stability for athletes that put their bodies at risk daily. These efforts aside, California stands alone. The sports world is waiting in anticipation for possible repercussions, as the NCAA has previously threatened expulsion of schools that do not work in accordance with its regulations.
Supporters insist that this act is a step in the right direction; in fact, big names like NBA players LeBron James and Draymond Green are some of the Act’s most vocal advocates. James said that the Act is a big win and just the beginning of something special. He also referenced the importance of this Act in the context of his own underprivileged upbringing.
“And coming from just me and my mom, we didn’t have anything and we wouldn’t have been able to benefit at all from it, and the university would have been able to capitalize on everything that I would have been there for that year or two or whatever,” James said. “So I understand what those kids are going through. I feel for those kids that have been going through it for so long, so that’s why it’s personal to me.”
The Act takes the financial, and in some states physical, risks out of participation in college sports to some extent, as profit is still available for athletes who need income.
Supporters also address the inequity between college athletes and students not involved in athletics at these same universities. These students retain ownership of their image and name while student-athletes are forced to sacrifice such ownership. The Act would erase the disparity between these two groups.
The Act also brings further attention to the racialized effect of the NCAA regulations. The most popular sports—football and men’s basketball—bring in the most money for NCAA executives, and have higher participation from African American student-athletes.
The Act challenges this power dynamic by granting athletes ownership over their name and image.
Other arguments backing the Act claim that it opens up opportunities for athletes in sports that are less represented. Student-athletes in sports that do not offer the chance to go pro, like softball, now have a chance of being compensated. Additionally, women athletes who receive less recognition and smaller contracts in professional sports have the chance to take deals or sign autographs for profit.
The Act has clear benefits for student-athletes, but it does not address all the problems surrounding college athlete compensation. Endorsement deals, though beneficial in whatever form, will favor and likely be more lucrative for star athletes who are also more likely to have careers in their sports. The Act does not address compensation for athletes who do not achieve the “star” status and cannot expect multimillion dollar contracts to be waiting for them at the end of their college careers. Even though they still commit years of their lives to college athletics, the somewhat-less-than-star athletes that won’t make profits from endorsements or sponsorships are still expected to make the same sacrifices for their sports.
The Fair Pay to Play Act has generated widespread support from lawmakers, professional athletes, and former college athletes but is referenced often as a step, indicating that the NCAA has more changes and challenges headed its way.
Abby Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.