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A game between U.S.C. and U.C.L.A., two California schools that would be affected by the Fair Pay to Play Act

Cal Sport Media/Alamy Stock Photo

Editor’s Note: On October 29, the N.C.A.A.’s board of governors unanimously voted to allow students to “benefit from the use of their name, image, and likeness.” The board asked the association to create the new rules and put them in place no later than January 2021. But it’s unclear whether the new rules will go far enough to satisfy those who consider the current system unfair.  

Payday for College Athletes?

Student-athletes have long been barred from earning money for their talents. But a new California law would let college players cash in for the first time.

Each fall, hordes of fans pack into stadiums across the country to cheer on their favorite college football teams, and millions more watch the games on television. The billions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales, sponsorships, and TV deals goes to the schools and the athletic conferences they belong to, such as the Big Ten and Pac-12. The networks broadcasting the games cash in from selling commercial slots. And top coaches earn millions in salaries.

But there’s one group involved that doesn’t make any money: the players.

Under National Collegiate Athletic Association (N.C.A.A.) rules, college athletes aren’t allowed to get paid by their schools. They also can’t make money off the use of their name, image, or likeness, meaning they can’t sign endorsement deals with sneaker companies, get paid to appear on the covers of video games, profit from sales of their jerseys, or even sell their autographs on eBay.

Now a new law in California could change that. In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the Fair Pay to Play Act to allow college athletes in that state to strike endorsement deals and hire agents. The law, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2023—but may face a court challenge before then from the N.C.A.A.—is the latest chapter in a longstanding debate over whether college athletes should get paid.

“Every single student in the university can market their name, image, and likeness; they can go and get a YouTube channel, and they can monetize that,” Newsom says. “The only group that can’t are athletes. Why is that?”

It happens every fall across the country. Crowds of fans pack into stadiums to cheer on their favorite college football teams. Millions more watch the games on television. The ticket sales, sponsorships, and TV deals generate billions of dollars in revenue. That money goes to the schools and the athletic conferences they belong to, such as the Big Ten and Pac-12. The networks broadcasting the games cash in from selling commercial slots. And top coaches earn millions in salaries.

But there’s one group involved that doesn’t make any money: the players.

That’s because of rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (N.C.A.A.). Under these rules, college athletes aren’t allowed to get paid by their schools. They also can’t make money off the use of their name, image, or likeness. That means they can’t sign endorsement deals with sneaker companies or get paid to appear on the covers of video games. They also can’t profit from sales of their jerseys or even sell their autographs on eBay.

Now a new law in California could change that. In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law the Fair Pay to Play Act. It allows college athletes in that state to strike endorsement deals and hire agents. The law is scheduled to go into effect in 2023. It’s likely that it’ll face a court challenge before then from the N.C.A.A. This is just the latest chapter in a longstanding debate over whether college athletes should get paid.

“Every single student in the university can market their name, image, and likeness; they can go and get a YouTube channel, and they can monetize that,” Newsom says. “The only group that can’t are athletes. Why is that?”

The Student-Athlete Debate

Though the law doesn’t mandate that colleges pay their athletes, it allows players to promote products and companies, cashing in on their sports renown for the first time.

And although the law applies only to California, it sets up the possibility that leaders in college sports will eventually have to choose between changing the rules for athletes nationwide or barring sports powerhouses in California, such as U.C.L.A. and U.S.C., from competition.

The law has garnered support from many who believe it’s unfair for the N.C.A.A., schools, coaches, and networks to make so much money off college sports while the players can’t. They point out that the annual men’s college basketball tournament, called March Madness, brings in about $900 million in revenue for the N.C.A.A.—none of which is shared with the players.

“People are just so aware of the fact that you’ve got a multibillion-dollar industry that—let’s set aside scholarships—basically denies compensation to the very talent, the very work that produces that revenue,” says California State Senator Nancy Skinner, who wrote the legislation.

The law doesn’t require colleges to pay their athletes. It allows players to promote products and companies. That’ll give college athletes the ability to cash in on their sports fame for the first time.

The law applies only to California. But it sets up the possibility that leaders in college sports will eventually have to make some tough decisions. They’ll have to choose between changing the rules for athletes nationwide or barring sports powerhouses in California, such as U.C.L.A. and U.S.C., from competition.

The law has garnered support from many who believe it’s unfair for the N.C.A.A., schools, coaches, and networks to make so much money off college sports while the players can’t. They point out that the annual men’s college basketball tournament, called March Madness, brings in about $900 million in revenue for the N.C.A.A. None of that money gets shared with the players.

“People are just so aware of the fact that you’ve got a multibillion-dollar industry that—let’s set aside scholarships—basically denies compensation to the very talent, the very work that produces that revenue,” says California State Senator Nancy Skinner, who wrote the legislation.

Many current and former athletes also applauded the new law. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers wrote on Instagram that it “will change the lives for countless athletes who deserve it!”

However, critics argue that student-athletes should be focused on earning degrees, not profits. Colleges, they point out, already award more than $2.9 billion in athletic scholarships to players each year, and many athletes get a leg up in college admissions.

In a September letter to Governor Newsom, the N.C.A.A. also said the law would give California schools “an unfair recruiting advantage,” since many of the best players would likely go play where they can make money—and the association threatened to bar California schools from competition.

“This bill would remove that essential element of fairness and equal treatment that forms the bedrock of college sports,” the letter stated. It added that the N.C.A.A. is already working to change “rules for all student-athletes to appropriately use their name, image, and likeness in accordance with our values.”

Many current and former athletes also applauded the new law. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers wrote on Instagram that it “will change the lives for countless athletes who deserve it!”

But critics argue that student-athletes should be focused on earning degrees, not profits. Colleges, they point out, already award more than $2.9 billion in athletic scholarships to players each year. They also note that many athletes get a leg up in college admissions.

In a September letter to Governor Newsom, the N.C.A.A. also said the law would give California schools “an unfair recruiting advantage.” They predict that many of the best players would likely go play where they can make money. The association threatened to bar California schools from competition.

“This bill would remove that essential element of fairness and equal treatment that forms the bedrock of college sports,” the letter stated. It added that the N.C.A.A. is already working to change “rules for all student-athletes to appropriately use their name, image, and likeness in accordance with our values.”

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Stanford University’s women’s basketball team during the 2019 women’s March Madness tournament

A Legal Challenge?

The law’s start date of 2023 gives the N.C.A.A. time to mount a legal challenge. But California is betting that the association will back down and possibly change the rules for all college athletes.

The law’s start date of 2023 gives the N.C.A.A. time to mount a legal challenge. But California is betting that the association will back down and possibly change the rules for all college athletes.

Is it unfair that athletes earn nothing while schools make millions?

The N.C.A.A. is facing pressure from a number of other statehouses as well. Legislators in Florida and Illinois have proposed similar bills. And in New York, a state senator has submitted legislation that would require colleges to pay 15 percent of the money earned from sports ticket sales to student-athletes. Officials in some other states have also signaled unease with the N.C.A.A.’s way of doing business. Many experts think California’s law could be just the first step toward allowing all college athletes to get paid.

Says Trey Lamar, a state representative in Mississippi and a former running back for the University of Mississippi: “I think you could very well see a groundswell in statehouses across the country against the N.C.A.A.”

The N.C.A.A. is facing pressure from some other statehouses as well. Legislators in Florida and Illinois have proposed similar bills. And in New York, a state senator has submitted legislation that would require colleges to pay 15 percent of the money earned from sports ticket sales to student-athletes. Officials in some other states have also signaled unease with the N.C.A.A.’s way of doing business. Many experts think California’s law could be just the first step toward allowing all college athletes to get paid.

Says Trey Lamar, a state representative in Mississippi and a former running back for the University of Mississippi: “I think you could very well see a groundswell in statehouses across the country against the N.C.A.A.”

With reporting by Alan Binder of The Times.

With reporting by Alan Binder of The Times.

College Sports By the Numbers

$10.8 billion

AMOUNT CBS and Turner Sports are paying the N.C.A.A. for the rights to broadcast the March Madness tournament for a 14-year period ending in 2024. 

Source: N.C.A.A.

AMOUNT CBS and Turner Sports are paying the N.C.A.A. for the rights to broadcast the March Madness tournament for a 14-year period ending in 2024. 

Source: N.C.A.A.

$94 million

AVERAGE ANNUAL EARNINGS of Texas A&M’s football team over the past three years. It’s the nation’s most profitable college football team.

Source: Forbes (number is an estimate)

AVERAGE ANNUAL EARNINGS of Texas A&M’s football team over the past three years. It’s the nation’s most profitable college football team.

Source: Forbes (number is an estimate)

151

NUMBER of college football and men’s basketball coaches who earn at least $1 million per year.

Source: USA Today (number is for last season)

NUMBER of college football and men’s basketball coaches who earn at least $1 million per year.

Source: USA Today (number is for last season)

$1.5 million

AVERAGE PRICE advertisers pay CBS for a 30-second TV ad that runs during the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship game.

Source: Statista (2014)

AVERAGE PRICE advertisers pay CBS for a 30-second TV ad that runs during the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championship game.

Source: Statista (2014)

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