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Jane McManus: Pay For Play?

Last week, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that will potentially allow college athletes to earn money based on their name and likeness.

As targeted as the Fair Pay to Play Act is, it is causing quite a stir at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, with NCAA president Mark Emmert going so far as to say that the law will reduce student-athletes to employees.

But “employee” might just be a promotion.

The NCAA currently benefits from a legal framework that allows administrators, collegiate bowls, broadcasters and coaches to rake in billions of dollars while athletes receive a scholarship, and sometimes a little bit more, from the institution they work for.

This has led to comical rules, like prohibiting athletes from putting cream cheese on bagels without violating NCAA regulations, to tragic ones. The poorer the student, the easier it is to lose playing time and scholarships for accepting meals, loans or in one case even a used mattress from an assistant coach.

Easy enough for quarterback Tim Tebow, whose family never had to chose between providing rent or a meal for their children, to romanticize the amateur ideal. BUT, If you want to read more about how the system disadvantages poor and minority athletes, read Taylor Branch’s seminal 2011 article in The Atlantic called, “The Shame of College Sports.”

One argument against paying players of revenue-generating sports has always been that it will mean women who play for their colleges don’t get equal pay. It is a bit of a canard, pinning the continuing inequity of an unfair system upon women.

So it was with interest that I watched Katelyn Ohashi’s commentary on the Fair Pay to Play Act in the New York Times.

If you were online last year, you couldn’t avoid Ohashi’s viral gymnastics routine for UCLA. She was exuberant, flipping and twisting to beats from Janet Jackson and Motown, her face lighting up with confidence and her smiles reflected in faces in the crowd.

It was a great moment, BUT, she explains in the video:

“I was handcuffed by the NCAA rules that prevented me from deriving any benefit from my own name and likeness

Regardless of the fact that after my final meet I had no pro league to join. The NCAA is a billion dollar industry built on the backs of college athletes.”

Ohashi had a moment – she was recognizable, a symbol of how irrepressible true individuality is even within the context of a floor routine.

But the spotlight dimmed before she was able to take advantage of it.

People who want to preserve the purity of college sports are living in a bygone era, before conferences had television networks and the Pac-12 had an official soda sponsor and before Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski made nearly $9 million a year.

NCAA sports are already pro sports in nearly every way, except the athletes are conscripted to play in an economically dishonest system.

California is offering a challenge to a framework that has been in place far too long.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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