Keith Strudler: The United States Of California
Texas has always fancied itself as something of its own country, and every now and then someone starts a drive to secede. But if you’re looking for the state that’s actually closest to sovereignty, you should look further west to California, a state that increasingly makes its own distinct rules and policies, a whole lot that contradict those of the US. First it was legalizing marijuana, then there’s laws about reducing car emissions, and now there’s this. California Governor Gavin Newsom just signed a bill into law that would allow college student athletes to both make money off their likeness and endorsements and have an agent. Currently, doing either of those things is expressly forbidden by the NCAA, and would render you ineligible to be a college athlete. In other words, by making money off being an elite level athlete, you’re no longer an amateur, the singular pillar of the NCAA’s organizational philosophy. Whether you buy into that idea is up to you. But up to this point, doing anything as simple as signing an autograph for money can end your playing days as State U.
There are some caveats to the law, including not being able to sign a deal that conflicts with your University’s existing contracts. So most college basketball players couldn’t sign their own Nike shoe deal, since their school probably already has one. And this law doesn’t deal with the larger issue of actual compensation for college athletes based on their work and revenue generated, which essentially applies to a very small minority of athletes that play football and men’s basketball at a select group of Division I schools. But, at the very least, this law challenges the NCAA’s stranglehold on the lives of young people who aren’t allowed to capitalize on their own value.
For now, it’s only California. Which, for the record, has four universities in the Powerful Pac 12 conference and a boatload of other Division I schools. But other states are taking notice. South Carolina, home of the defending football national champions Clemson, has been considering this kind of legislation for a while. New York is now also considering a bill that would also require a percentage of ticket sales go to student athletes. I imagine that we may see a handful of states follow suit, especially since California’s law doesn’t take effect until 2023, which given the daily news cycle, feels a really, really long way away.
Then again, maybe it won’t matter, since it’s almost inconceivable that the courts won’t either privilege or kill this initiative. If they don’t, it’s largely a game of chicken between the governing body of college sports and a state that fiscally out produces pretty much every state of the Southeastern Conference combined. Alabama may play great football, but when it comes to economics, not so much. It’s hard to imagine a landscape where the NCAA kicks UCLA and Stanford out of college sports. It’s also hard to consider the kind of recruiting advantage California schools would have over their other American counterparts that don’t have the same rules for its athletes. If nothing else, California’s new law essentially forces the issue of the cartel that is college sports, something that will clearly come to a head long before 2023.
It’s pretty obvious to see the opposition to California’s new order. Everyone from the NCAA to the commissioner of the PAC 12 conference – who earns over $5 million a year overseeing amateur athletes, by the way – to California college presidents themselves are all against the new law. They say it’ll ruin college sports, make it all professional, and otherwise take away the inherent value of playing semi-professional sports for a scholarship. And to be fair, this law would definitely change the power dynamic of college athletics and likely widen the divide between power schools like Michigan and Texas and the hundreds of Davids that barely scrape by.
And that, in essence, is the most likely outcome – or perhaps the most logical outcome of this movement. At some point, the NCAA, and really it’s university members, have to realize they’re not all doing the same thing. Which means the best business model for USC isn’t necessarily the right one for Cal Tech. In some ways, this new California law makes that possible. It’s not mandating any school to do anything. It’s just simply keeping them from holding their students back, something we’d assume a goal of any institution of higher learning.
But in the end, one way or another, California will win. It may not be this law, but at some point, college athletes will be able to get paid, just like Olympians did decades ago. And not just in California, but all across the U.S. – assuming by then, California is still part of it.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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