The N in NCAA may stand for “National,” but if legislation going through the California Legislature becomes law, the Golden State could be forced to, in a manner of speaking, secede from the Union in college sports.
At issue is a bill the state Senate approved earlier this year by a 31-5 vote that would allow student-athletes to be able to profit off their names, images and likenesses regardless of NCAA rules that otherwise govern — and currently prohibit — the practice.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has expressed he is open to the idea of college athletes being compensated for the use of their names, images and likenesses, and the organization last month announced the formation of an exploratory committee to look at how its rules could be modified to allow student-athletes to get a piece of the action.
But California lawmakers aren’t waiting for the NCAA — and the four Pac-12 schools and 19 other programs in the state could pay a heavy price as a result.
USA Today reported Monday that Emmert sent a letter to the California Assembly in which he warned that if the Fair Pay to Play Act becomes law, the NCAA would consider making all 23 schools ineligible for postseason tournament play.
“We recognize all of the efforts that have been undertaken to develop this bill in the context of complex issues related to the current collegiate model that have been the subject of litigation and much national debate,” Emmert wrote. “Nonetheless, when contrasted with current NCAA rules, 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. As a result, it likely would have a negative impact on the exact student-athletes it intends to assist.”
If the bill is approved by Legislature, it will go to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is likely, as a member of the same Democratic Party that controls both houses of the California Assembly by a large majority, to sign it into law.
At that point, the bill would take until 2023 to go into effect, with potentially massive consequences.
As Sports Illustrated reported, only California colleges that receive an average of $10 million per year or more in media revenue would be affected, but that is a low floor by the standards of Division I college revenue sports.
Making this a far thornier issue is language in the bill that would explicitly allow student-athletes to hire agents to represent them in individual licensing deals with apparel manufacturers, video game publishers and the rest of America’s multibillion-dollar industry that is the endorsements market.
It is worth noting that nowhere in this bill is any language that would turn students into professional athletes on the field or court. When competing for their schools in sanctioned competitions, the student-athletes would still be, in the sense of both federal labor law and in playing without direct financial compensation, amateurs.
They would just be allowed to engage in extracurricular revenue generation outside of that action in the field of play.
From the NCAA’s point of view, however, that pierces the amateurism veil not just because of the money involved but because the source of the player’s marketability — their status as an athlete — creates the implication that they are making money off their play in college sports, and even though it’s a shoe or video game deal and not a salary, they’re still professionals in a sense.
Universities in California could oppose this bill, according to Sports Illustrated, because they fear that money that their business partners pay to the schools will go directly to the athletes instead.
It would seem, however, that schools could head off that sort of problem by simply retaining control of the use of school marks or branding on apparel, which would mean any player jerseys with a name and number would look like dollar-store knockoffs without any school logos.
The battle itself is an interesting one from the point of view of mutually assured destruction on the part of the NCAA and the California state government.
On the one hand, threatening to put schools on what would amount to permanent probation in terms of postseason bans would be devastating for recruiting — few student-athletes would want to go to a basketball school banned from March Madness, for example — California college programs could be rendered irrelevant.
On the other hand, California is a huge state, and it is far from the only state with the political leanings and the presence of big-name college programs to potentially threaten the NCAA. One could easily see Oregon and Washington using California’s bill as model legislation, as both states have the legislative makeup in terms of partisan lean to plausibly follow suit, and then there goes the Pac-12.
Likewise, North Carolina has started to make noise about enacting similar legislation, and if the prospect of March Madness never again including the likes of UNC, Duke, Wake Forest or N.C. State seems bad for business, that’s only because it would be bad for business.
The NCAA could find itself effectively dissolved as all of its member schools break away, something Emmert will have to consider between now and the California law, should it pass, going into effect in four years.
And in that event, what we’d be looking at is less a battle over one state and more a full-fledged sports civil war.
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