College sports is big business, and while schools and media organizations have long raked in the profits, students themselves have remained without pay. With a new California law, the landscape of college athletics is changing.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act in late September, which says that colleges and universities in that state cannot enforce the NCAA rule barring compensation opportunities for the use of a student athlete’s name, images or likeness. Student athletes will be free to individually market themselves. “They will be able to sign with agents while they're at university, and they can utilize that, whether it's TV commercials, camps, endorsements or autograph sessions,” says Dwayne Ballen, a longtime sports journalist. The law is set to go into effect in 2023.
One of the immediate effects of this law is how it could shift the recruiting process in favor of California. If it stays unchallenged by lawsuits from the NCAA, then the recruits will favor California programs for their earning potential. “If California is still the only state at that time that has this law, you can imagine recruiting and the advantage it is going to give to the universities in California over universities anywhere else in the country. And so there are a lot of coaches […] who are quite nervous about this advantage,” Ballen added.But Ballen believes it is not likely it will play out that way. He predicts that the NCAA will challenge the new law in court or change their own laws to adapt to the changing culture around college amateurism.
“Will their acts rise to the level of what the Fair Play to Play Act as they are Pay for Play Act is calling for? That's a good question, but it's hard to imagine that they won't do anything.” With the NCAA’s control of college sports and billion-dollar media contracts at risk, Ballen says it might be time for the governing body of collegiate athletics to reconsider its rules on compensation. The NCAA exalts academic integrity and a balance between academics and athletics, but Ballen says that idealism is no longer rooted in reality.
“It's become such a big economic enterprise now. Maybe 50 years ago you could kind of stand halfway on [...] one toe on that soapbox. But the truth is, when you have an enterprise [that] generates billions of dollars— They had revenue of $1 billion in 2018. [The] NCAA did, and coaches make seven figures across the country at the major level football and basketball, men's basketball. it's hard to look at your de facto workforce and say: Well, you know, everybody gets something except for you.’”
Athlete Kyle Queiro was a star defensive back for Northwestern University from 2013 to 2018. He then spent a year with the Dallas Cowboys and is now a free agent. In 2016 in a home game against Indiana University, Queiro executed a flawless one-handed interception that made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays for weeks.
It did not even occur to him that he could capitalize on that attention. “I mean, after there was an explosion of social media [...] It was a great opportunity, [...] but I never thought about it in terms of, you know, monetizing that moment,” he remembers.
Northwestern football players have enjoyed a 100% graduation rate for the past few years and an attentive staff, though it was not all perfect. Queiro remembers some of his teammates would take the money they received as a part of their ‘cost of attendance’ stipend to pay for family bills back home.
As excited as he and his buddies from Northwestern were about California’s law, Queiro still has some reservations. “I think one thing that people may miss is that it may only affect a small percentage of the players on the team. Being able to generate or monetize yourself based off of your likeness is not necessarily always going to occur for everybody across the board. I don't think the long snapper of an institution is necessarily going to get the same amount of press as, you know, a star quarterback.” If an 18 year-old five-star recruit joins a college team with thousands of dollars in endorsements under his belt, that could cause tension within a college locker room that is used to holding upperclassmen in leadership roles.
Barbara Osborne is the director of the Graduate Sport Administration Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. She says that opening up athletes to commercial compensation will corrupt college athletes. Access to high-end training facilities and cost of attendance expenditures all factor in to that compensation model for student athletes, she says.
“And that's more than any academic scholarship person or student at an institution would have.” She argues that “the intangibles that the athletes are receiving, besides that monetary compensation, is invaluable across their lifetime. And nobody's really talking about how much it costs to provide those athletes with those opportunities.”
Victoria Jackson has a different take. She is a former UNC-Chapel Hill cross country and track-and-field athlete who now teaches sports history at Arizona State University. Her writing examines the intersection of sports and society. In her view, this is the least that institutions that have long profited off student athlete labor — particularly the labor of young black men playing football and basketball — could do.
“If we drill in to the various sports, and especially within the Power Five, there's a bifurcated experience taking place in intercollegiate athletics. My work looks at how black athlete labor pays for white athlete privilege.”
She references the relative ease with which non-revenue athletes navigate the college experience in contrast to the long hours that revenue athletes put in for their schools.
Osborne is not so sure. “I think that all student athletes in all sports are putting in that same time and effort. It's not a few that are putting in those kinds of hours,” she says.
Still, Jackson is optimistic.
“I love college sports. I think we in higher education can do better. I see an opportunity in it to kind of open the door and do better to serve all our students who play sport, particularly, you know, earning more compensation, but also getting creative around what athlete education means.”
The NCAA has won previous court cases against states undermining their rules under the dormant commerce clause, which prevents states from blocking interstate commerce. Still, as seen in the 2014 O’Bannon v. NCAA decision, courts may be moving in favor of expanding the rights of college athletes.