'Pay to Play:' State Legislature Considers Compensation for College Athletes

The legislation contradicts longstanding NCAA policy, which prohibits athletes from profiting from their images during their collegiate career.

The legislation contradicts longstanding NCAA policy, which prohibits athletes from profiting from their images during their collegiate career. Shutterstock

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Under proposed legislation in California, college athletes could be paid for the use of their names, images or likenesses.

Proposed legislation in California would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images, a direct rebuttal to longstanding administrative policy that prohibits the practice.

The Fair Pay to Play Act, passed 31-5 by the state Senate last month and unanimously by the California State Assembly’s Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee on Tuesday, comes amid an ongoing national debate over if, and how, student athletes should be compensated. 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association currently forbids student athletes from profiting during their collegiate careers, a position that critics have decried, noting that the organization generates billions of dollars in revenue from athletics without allowing the athletes themselves to receive any profits. 

Those restrictions disproportionately affect women, as well as low-income students who attend college on athletic scholarships, according to state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat and the bill’s main sponsor.

“NCAA rules disproportionately harm students from low-income families,” Skinner said in a statement. “And they’re particularly unfair to female athletes, because for many young women, college is the only time they could earn income, since women have fewer professional sports opportunities than men.”

As written, the bill allows athletes to receive financial compensation only from sources outside of their schools—from a video game company using an athlete’s likeness, for example, or for signing jerseys, posters or other memorabilia. 

“SB 206 doesn’t require colleges to pay student athletes or incur any other costs,” Skinner said. “Instead, it will help relieve the financial pressure on young athletes to quit school and turn pro before they’ve completed their degrees.”

But schools have said they would still incur costs from the bill by having to hire staff to ensure compliance, the Los Angeles Times reported.

NCAA President Mark Emmert sent a letter asking lawmakers to defer action on the legislation until a recently formed working group, comprised of college administrators, conference commissioners and athletes, could report back to the association on ways that athletes could potentially profit from their names, images or likenesses. That update is expected in August, with a final report due to the NCAA’s board of governors in October—a month after the California legislature adjourns.

Passing the bill before then, Emmert warned, could have negative consequences for student athletes and their schools, including the potential of being excluded from participating in national championship games.

The proposal, he wrote, “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 would likely have a negative impact on the exact student-athletes it intends to assist.”

The bill accounts for that possibility, explicitly prohibiting the NCAA from keeping schools from participating in athletic competitions if their student athletes receive compensation. Emmert’s letter prompted legislators to add an amendment to the bill, saying the legislature would “monitor” the working group and “revisit this issue to implement significant findings and recommendations” from the panel “in furtherance of the statutory changes proposed by this act.” 

But, the amendment cautioned, the legislature would “continue to develop policies to ensure appropriate protections are in place to avoid exploitation of student athletes, colleges, and universities.”

The legislation is currently awaiting a hearing before the Assembly Committee on Higher Education. If signed into law, the bill would take effect in 2023.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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