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Pay College Athletes? Is California Serious?

Pay College Athletes? Is California Serious?
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

There's nothing like cheering on your favorite big-time college football or basketball team, secure in the knowledge that it is pure amateur competition unsullied by money.

OK, that was sarcasm. No serious fan of big-time college sports believes in this myth. No serious fan is unaware that college sports — at least the kind that draw big crowds — are a crassly commercial enterprise.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) now rakes in $1.1 billion a year. Big athletic departments make millions from TV contracts. And in 39 states, the highest paid public employee is either a football coach or a basketball coach. (University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban tops this list with a salary of $8.3 million.)

But the people who are responsible for drawing the crowds who pay for all this — the athletes, that is — are paid nothing.

California: Student Athletes Should Be Paid

On Sept. 30, the state of California took a step toward rectifying this double standard when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing athletes to hire agents and make money from endorsements. It's important to note that the measure doesn't call for actual payment to athletes — it just says they can't lose scholarships or get kicked off teams if they sign endorsement deals. But it is the first time that a state has said athletes deserve compensation.

For the NCAA, the California law is a monumental threat that they will fight with a legal challenge. It's also likely that other states will follow California's lead. Legislators in five states — Colorado, Maryland, New York, South Carolina and Washington — have introduced bills that are similar or even more generous to student athletes. The New York bill, for instance, would allow athletes to seek endorsement deals but also would direct schools to place 15 percent of their total sports revenue into a fund to be divided equally among all athletes as well as a fund for injured players.

The California law is scheduled to go into effect in 2023, meaning that much could change in the meantime. But the NCAA told Newsom in September that they consider the measure to be "unconstitutional," which may signal that they are considering a lawsuit under the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

This means that the NCAA would argue that California is interfering with the interstate commerce that the Association basically possesses in the form of all the games that are played and broadcast in all 50 states.

But in attempting to deal with the issue in the short term, the NCAA has called a committee to respond to California with recommendations for changes. The California Legislature, meanwhile, has stated that it is open to considering recommendations from that group.

Because of its very size and importance to the NCAA, California is basically gambling that the Association will blink and back down before 2023. But if nothing changes and the NCAA decides to play hardball, athletes with agents and endorsement contracts would be in violation of the Association's rules and be ineligible to play. And California schools would be barred from NCAA competition and potentially face millions of dollars in fines.

So if you're a top-notch young athlete, there could be gold in those California hills. But there could also be disappointment.

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