The NCAA—about as amoral a cartel as exists this side of the GOP—has issued all the threats. If players had the right to earn money off of their names, images, and likenesses, they argue, the entire college sports system would effectively implode. They thundered this repeatedly in the direction of California Governor Gavin Newsom, but it didn’t stop him from signing SB-206, which passed unanimously in the California state Senate. The bill, also known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, allows college athletes to get a cut of the profit they generate with their labor.
While Newsom signed the bill—on LeBron James’s HBO show, no less (LeBron was a big supporter of the bill)—credit for the victory belongs to the thousands of NCAA athletes who over the years have raised their voices against this corrupt system. From former UCLA great Ed O’Bannon, who took the NCAA to court when he randomly saw his likeness in an NCAA video game, to Ramogi Huma and his organization, the National College Players Association, which has been agitating around this issue for years.
Also in the trenches around this issue has been the NFL Players Association. I received this comment from DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA:
This legislation is just the beginning and we hope it leads other jurisdictions to do the right thing. We support this movement because we know the NCAA has refused to treat college athletes fairly and instead continues to exploit them not only on the issue of compensation, but on their rights and healthcare as well.
The NCAA’s response has been predictable:
As a membership organization, the NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level through the NCAA’s rules-making process. Unfortunately, this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses, and not just in California We will consider next steps in California while our members move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education. As more states consider their own specific legislation related to this topic, it is clear that a patchwork of different laws from different states will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field for 1,100 campuses and nearly half a million student-athletes nationwide.
In other words, the NCAA’s army of lawyers is coming.
Jay Bilas, ESPN host and thorn in the NCAA’s side, tweeted acidly, “I hope the horrible ‘confusion’ the NCAA speaks of doesn’t cause the NCAA and its members to cancel football games or suspend play. This whole thing is so confusing…unless all of the money is going into your pocket. It’s pretty freaking clear and understandable then.”
Stewart Mandel, a longtime writer for Sports Illustrated, also punched a hole through this argument by saying, “The NCAA/conferences are trying to manipulate the public into believing that athletes profiting from use of their NIL [name, image, likeness] is the same thing as being paid by their schools to play sports. They. Are. Not. The. Same.”
I reached out to David West for his perspective. The recently retired 15 year NBA veteran is now the President of the Historical Basketball League, which aims to provide pay for players as well as education in a direct challenge to the NCAA. He said,
California’s SB206 is a step in the right direction for college athletes. But with that said, the legislative process has watered down this bill so that its impact will be minimally felt, if ever. I remain focused on the HBL and holistically changing the landscape of college sports, so that college athletes get a truly equitable opportunity whereby they’re offered compensation, education, and complete NIL rights.
I also contacted Ben Carrington, a professor at the University of Southern California who, among other academic endeavors, teaches about the intersection of sports and society. He e-mailed me:
For once the hackneyed sports cliché is true: This is a game changer. We’ll likely look back on this day, September 30th 2019, as the moment when the unjust and inherently exploitative system that is the NCAA-controlled, college sports spectacle, finally began to break. We’ll be ashamed and embarrassed, a decade from now, about how we allowed a system that exploited the sporting labor of predominately young African American men (they are not ‘kids’), whilst their surplus value went into the pockets of overwhelming white male coaches and Athletics Directors, of how they were treated differently from everyone else on campus because somehow, this Victorian upper-class idea of ‘amateurism’ applied to the student athletes, and the student athletes only. As Taylor Branch famously put it, college sports in America has the ‘whiff of the plantation’. Well today we saw a way off that plantation. Student athletes finally being given rights to see themselves as having collective interests and the ability to exercise control over how their images and likeness is used and to get paid to coach if they want to. This is huge.
It is absolutely huge. It is also merely the beginning. Expect more states to pass similar legislation (Florida is already starting the process). Expect more threats like those already issued from the athletic directors at Ohio State and Wisconsin who said that California schools would eventually booted out of the NCAA and that they wouldn’t go to the West Coast for games. In response, California state Senate member Nancy Skinner, the person who first brought this bill to the legislature, said, “We have lots of experience with threats from entrenched interests. Lots.… We’re the fifth-largest economy in the world. We withstand those threats.”