Will a California bill give players a slice of college sports' $14bn pie?

Melissa Jacobs
Photograph: Nell Redmond/AP

This week LeBron James, Bernie Sanders and countless other heavy hitters lent their support to a monumental bill in California that, if passed, could forever alter the business of collegiate athletics and the entire American sports landscape. SB 206 (also known as the Fair Pay to Play Act) would permit collegiate athletes in the state, which include schools like USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford, to seek payment for use of their name, image or likeness.

The NCAA, the governing body for college sports in America, has long prohibited its student-athletes from earning any semblance of profit associated with their skill set or name cache. Meanwhile college sports are a $14bn industry, and the NCAA reported a staggering $1.1bn in revenue generated last year, thanks in large part to the unpaid labor of its athletes.

Related: The Rich Paul Rule is proof the NCAA knows its days are numbered | Etan Thomas

The California state assembly this week voted unanimously in favor of the bill. It is expected to overwhelmingly pass in the California state senate soon, and then will land on the desk of California governor Gavin Newsom, who will have 30 days to sign or veto the bill.

Fair Pay to Play does not require schools to alter their methods of recruiting or increase their scholarships minimums. It simply allows athletes to earn spending money in a multitude of currently prohibited ways, such as selling their memorabilia, signing endorsement deals or even offering private lessons.

The stark disparity in income between the players and those in the NCAA’s web of wealth has long been part of the national conversation, and the intensity has heightened with the possibility of SB 206 becoming reality.

As James tweeted to his 43.6m followers, “Everyone is California- call your politicians and tell them to support SB 206! This law is a GAME CHANGER. College athletes can responsibly get paid for what they do and the billions they create.”

With the bill’s fate on the brink, NCAA president Mark Emmert wrote a fiery letter to Newsom on Wednesday demanding he veto. Emmert called the act “unconstitutional” and threatened to boot California schools from NCAA competition, citing an “unfair advantage”.

The bill’s co-author, state senator Nancy Skinner fired back at Emmert, calling his bluff and noting that the NCAA has lost many anti-trust decisions in the past.

Understanding the battle between the players, who many consider “indentured servants,” the deep-moneyed NCAA, and the college sports purists who strongly believe in the amateur-professional divide requires a deeper examination of this contentious landscape.

Bleak picture for student-athletes

Late 2011 was the final straw for Tim Nevius. The then-NCAA investigator had been the lead investigator in the Ohio State tattoo “scandal”, in which several star players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were suspended for five games for selling memorabilia in exchange for free and discounted tattoos. The intensity of the media coverage and the punishment, it all seemed so blown of out proportion to Nevius.

“There was an element of discomfort as I worked on more and more cases and seeing what the universities were making off the talents of those young people and their inability to capitalize on their own skill,” Nevius says.

A year later he visited Jermil Martin, a former Ohio State running back who transferred after he was punished for exchanging memorabilia for a discount on a Chevy Tahoe. Martin never graduated college and was trying to get by in a rough neighborhood outside of Columbus, his dreams of earning a top education and launching a successful football career out of reach. Martin had tears in his eyes as he described being taken advantage of and how his life fell apart simply because of a discounted vehicle.

Nevius couldn’t take it anymore. He left the NCAA and soon thereafter founded Nevius Legal, a company that helps college athletes navigate the NCAA’s 400-page ever-changing rule book and all aspects of compliance. He more recently launched the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, which lobbies for institutional reform. CAAI recently released a searing ad spotlighting the plight of the student athlete which for many is darker than it seems.

When a school grants a player a scholarship they are essentially trading employment for a free (or reduced cost) education. Thanks to a 2015 victorious federal lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon against the NCAA, athletes on full scholarship are also eligible for a cost-of-living stipend, though it is often just enough for the basics. The athlete must operate under a litany of complex rules without the assistance of an agent or a union. Heavy fines, stripped eligibility and other punishments are only a minor misstep away.

The NCAA touts the value of a free education. For some this is true. You will hear about players like Andrew Luck, who earned an engineering degree from Stanford, or other payers who would thrive with or without football. But for many, especially the African Americans who live below the poverty line and make up a significant portion of basketball and football rosters in elite conferences, the reality is more grim.

According to 2018 report from USC’s Race and Equity Center, just 55% of black athletes from the Power Five conferences, which includecollege sports’ most profitable programs, graduate in six years as compared to 69.3% of all student-athletes.

Nevius says that many of those graduates are left with hollow futures. “Everything is designed around the university and coach’s priority of sports first so they’re clustered into these majors that may not align with their academic interest and oftentimes do not give them the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in life beyond sports,” he says.

According to the NCAA, fewer than 2% of college athletes go on to play professional sports.

The NCAA is drowning in money

In any organization that generates billions, top employees will pocket significant salaries. But in the NCAA, the figures are astronomical. Alabama football coach Nick Saban will make $8.3m this year. Kansas basketball coach Bill Self will make $7.9m. Emmert will take home $2.4m. In fact, the highest-paid state employee in 39 of the 50 states is a college football or basketball coach. These coaches can earn additional money from radio appearances, endorsement deals and, really, in any way they choose.

Much of the NCAA’s revenue comes from television contracts. Its March Madness rights packages with CBS and Turner Sports bring in $800m in revenue alone. Passage of SB 206 would not make a dent in televisions contract figures or any aspect of the NCAA’s nonstop flow of cash. It would simply afford athletes the chance to profit off their sliver of time as an expert in their field. As Skinner has pointed out, this is especially true for female athletes who have virtually no options in the professional sports market.

The NCAA asserts that amateurism protects a number of potential pitfalls, ranging from an uneven playing field to players living off campus to a reduced focus on academics. The swelling number of dissenters say these notions are baseless, an example of fear-mongering and an attempt for the NCAA maintain control of an antiquated system.

What’s next?

If SB 206 is signed into law, the NCAA could ban California schools from competing in its association as Emmert threatens. But taking that route would cost the NCAA significant amounts of revenue and an ungodly legal bill as this battle would likely head to the courts. It would also, as Emmert suggests, give California schools an advantage in recruiting even if they had to form some kind of independent league. Given this reality, passage of the bill could eventually force the NCAA to follow suit.

The more symbiotic move would be for the NCAA to work with lawmakers and enact the bill (or a similar version) across schools nationwide. There are the purists who want to protect the sanctity of amateurism yet each new bill and lawsuit is an inch closer to the inevitable.

While passage of SB 206 would barrel away from amateurism in its purist form, there is a still a massive disparity between what a college athlete would make selling a jersey or offering hitting lessons vs. a professional athlete salary. Yet the ability to make some semblance of money might keep some elite athletes from declaring early, which would in turn generate even more revenue for the member school and the NCAA.

Passage of SB 206 seems rational on several fronts, but Nevius doesn’t see the multi-billion dollar entity that is the NCAA acquiescing without a continued fight.

“I just think it’s so wasteful and tone deaf. This is the way things are going and it’s widely recognized as the fair and right thing to do but the NCAA in the interest of money and control refuses to allow to this happen as it should. It’s beyond disappointing, it’s disgusting.”