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Pay to play: Will California prompt congressional action on college athletics?

The norm for college athletics has been steadily rising revenue, and business shifts

Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler catches a 22-yard touchdown pass during a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday. A new California law may prompt congressional action to allow student-athletes to be compensated. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file photo)
Penn State wide receiver KJ Hamler catches a 22-yard touchdown pass during a game against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday. A new California law may prompt congressional action to allow student-athletes to be compensated. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file photo)

For college football fanatics, nothing compares to waking up on that first crisp autumn Saturday morning to prepare for a whole day of game watching. Tuning in to ESPN’s “College GameDay.” Sipping bourbon at the tailgate without facing societal judgment for drinking before noon.

College football’s shared rituals and traditions provide millions with a weekly source of escapism and entertainment every fall. The game offers excitement, frustration and camaraderie on any given Saturday thanks to the dizzying skills of its student-athletes.

But as the billion-dollar behemoth steadily grows, so too does criticism of its governing body’s rule prohibiting players from profiting off their labor.

Player advocates have long argued the NCAA  exploits college football players, raking in millions for schools while denying student-athletes (almost half of whom are African American) the opportunity to realize their value.

So can college football fairly compensate its players without making the current game unrecognizable?

California is hoping to do just that. In the coming years, the state will allow student-athletes to make money from their names, images and likenesses, a move that could set off a state arms race, upend the current notion of amateurism and change the sport forever.

Before being signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, the NCAA said the California proposal would “erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics and, because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage, would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions.”

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But after conceding defeat, the NCAA has hinted a national standard may be better than a patchwork of state laws.

Figures such as future NBA Hall of Famer LeBron James and Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, a five-time NCAA tournament champion, have come out in support of California’s Fair Pay to Play Act.

Pennsylvania has introduced a similar measure. It makes sense that states who don’t want their schools to lose a competitive advantage in recruiting — the lifeblood of college athletics — are scrambling to make their own compensation rules.

The issue has even surfaced on the campaign trail. Sen. Cory Booker, a former Stanford University football player, recently introduced a student-athlete pay plan that he would push for if elected president.

“For decades, professional and college sports have engaged in exploitative practices of athletes — practices like discrimination, wage theft, and price fixing that would be unacceptable in other contexts and that most other workers would have the power to address,” the New Jersey Democrat said in a statement.

In March, Reps. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican, and Cedric L. Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, introduced a federal version of California’s law called the Student-Athlete Equity Act, which would change the definition of a “qualified amateur sports organization” in the U.S. tax code to “remove the restriction on student-athletes using or being compensated for use of their name, image and likeness — forcing the NCAA to change its current model.”

Both Walker and Richmond were student-athletes at Trinity Baptist College and Morehouse College, respectively.

“This is a civil rights issue,” Walker said during a recent discussion on the issue. “In what other genre do you tell someone that we basically own your name and your likeness over the next four or five years?”

The bill also has the support of Sen. Mitt Romney, who oversaw the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

“Something is badly awry in college athletics, where you have the coaches, appropriately in many cases, I’m sure, making millions of dollars, and billions of dollars associated with an activity,” the Utah Republican said. “And yet you have student-athletes who are sending home their lunch money so that their parents are able to eat and their families have a future.”

But it’s not just poor students who suffer, according to Joe Briggs, who serves as counsel for the NFL Players Association. Restrictive schedules filled with practices, games and travel, severely impact everything from sleep to selection of a college major. “The inability to have internships, the inability to participate in job opportunities, and the inability to participate in things like study abroad,” all leave student-athletes at a disadvantage, Briggs said, particularly if they don’t turn pro.

The NCAA’s ban on player profit has created a shadow economy of under-the-table player payments that have brought scandal to numerous schools, the most famous being the Southern Methodist University slush fund scandal in the 1980s that led to the “death penalty” for its football program for one year.

Why would the NCAA prefer that to an open market where student-athletes are allowed to profit from their labor?

“Control,” said Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst who played for Krzyzewski in the 1980s. Bilas thinks the NCAA is afraid that if it compensates its players, it would give them more power and weaken the governing body. But he also thinks this logic is misguided.

Lifting the ban would “make things easier,” Bilas said. “Right now they have to police every little thing.” And once they allow students to make money from their likenesses, it could open more streams of revenue for the schools.

Humble beginnings

NBC broadcast the first televised college football game on Sept. 30, 1939, a 34-7 win Fordham University Rams over Waynesburg College Yellow Jackets at New York City’s Triborough Stadium.

Despite the humble beginning (according to the American Sportscasters Association, the 50-mile broadcast radius delivered the game to about 1,000 television sets) college football and its money potential took off. 

In 2016, ESPN and Fox agreed to pay the Big 10 conference a combined $2.6 billion over six years for football and basketball broadcast rights.

Meanwhile, ESPN has an entire channel dedicated to the Southeastern Conference, which is valued at almost $4.7 billion by research firm SNL Kagan.

Yet in 1951 the NCAA voted to prohibit televised broadcasts of college football games.


The association feared televised games would hurt attendance. But the horse was already out of the barn.

The University of Pennsylvania, which had just signed a $200,000 (about $2 million in 2019 dollars) contract with ABC, refused to comply.

The NCAA threatened to expel Penn and encouraged opponents not to play them, forcing Penn to back off. But Congress stepped in, threatening antitrust hearings, which convinced the NCAA to allow Penn to broadcast a limited number of its games so long as tickets sold out.

It’s difficult to imagine the NCAA once fiercely opposing a change that’s been such a boon to its wallet.

Bilas pointed out that for years the NCAA argued that providing student-athletes with the cost of living stipends would violate the spirit of amateurism, but reversed itself after it became the norm. So California’s law could force the NCAA’s hand.

“I know there are people who think, ‘Well, we can hold this off, we’re not going to make a change here,’” Romney said. “But the reality is, Congress is going to act. We’re for coming for you.”

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