California May Have Found a Way to Get College Athletes Paid

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The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prohibits college athletes from profiting monetarily in any way from their sports activities — even though the organization (and its member institutions) make billions of dollars annually from college sports.

That situation might change soon — at least in California.

Last month, the state senate passed The Fair Pay to Play Act, SB-206, which would allow team members to profit from outside sources, including the use of their names and likenesses in various commercial contexts. Colleges would still be banned from paying athletes directly — and suffice to say that any fees they did receive would hardly put them in the same realm as the most overpaid athletes in pro sports.

The NCAA rules “disproportionately harm students from low-income families…[and are] particularly unfair to female athletes…since women have fewer professional sports opportunities than men,” according to Democratic state senator Nancy Skinner, the bill’s chief sponsor.

The question has been hotly debated in recent years. Some opponents of the idea argue that profiting from their sports activities would give athletes less incentive to attend to their studies, since they would already, if effect, have jobs — while others point out that only the star players would likely make much money from the practice, leaving lower-end players uncompensated, and thus potentially increasing team tensions. 

The NCAA has asked lawmakers not to pass the measure until a newly formed working group of college administrators, athletes, and college commissioners is able to study the matter. In a letter to the California State Assembly, NCAA president Mark Emmert warned that “as drafted the bill threatens to alter materially the principles of intercollegiate athletics and create local differences that would make it impossible to host fair national championships.” That, he said, “would have a negative impact on the exact student-athletes it intends to assist.”

California, which is home to a few colleges that produce the best NFL players, is hardly alone in wanting to compensate student athletes. The sports blogging network SBNation, for one, has proposed that the NCAA adopt the model used by the Olympic Games, in which athletes are free to profit from endorsement deals and autograph sales while retaining their amateur status. 

The act was also approved by the state assembly’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism, and Internet Media Committee and is now awaiting a hearing by the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. If the bill is enacted, it would take effect in 2023. This would certainly benefit athletes attending institutions like the 50 top-ranked colleges that pay off the least.