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September 30, 2019

California State Assembly Passes Bill Allowing College Athletes to Earn Endorsement Profits

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Photo by VOX

On Monday, September 9th, 2019 the California State Assembly voted unanimously, 72-0, for the Fair Pay to Play Act, a bill that would allow NCAA student-athletes to sign individual endorsement deals (Anantharaman, Deadspin). After the bill passed in the California Senate back in May 2019, with only one dissenter, the two chambers will now reconcile their versions before it heads to the desk of Governor Gavin Newsom (Anantharaman, Deadspin). With a 72-0 vote in support in the Assembly and a 35-1 vote in support in the Senate, most would assume this proposal to be wildly popular. While the majority does appear to be overwhelmingly in support, the reality is the dissenting minority who are against this bill are incredibly influential people who may have the power to prevent it from becoming law. 

Concisely, the Fair Pay to Play Act would prohibit schools from in the state of California from revoking scholarships, or an individual’s scholarship eligibility, if they’ve individually profited from their name, image, and likeness. The proposal in no way mandates schools to pay NCAA athletes anything, nor does it provide any funding for that purpose. The underlying message behind it is California colleges would no longer have full ownership of an individual player’s brand; that particular student-athlete would not be penalized for profiting off their success and likeness. It’s not hard to see why so many high profile athletes like LeBron James and prominent political figures like Bernie Sanders have come out in strong support of it (Anantharaman, Deadspin). As reported in March of 2019, the NCAA reached annual revenues over $1 billion with most of it coming from the NCAA March Madness tournament, which doesn’t include FBS revenue as that’s technically a separate entity (Lauletta, Business Insider). 

So while there’s an overwhelming amount of support from former NCAA student-athletes, celebrities, community leaders, and plenty of others – which comprises the influential minority that’s pushing hard to prevent this bill from being signed into law? In short, it’s coming from the most powerful NCAA officials and college coaches. In a letter written on June 2019, NCAA President Mark Emmert discussed the possibility of banning colleges located in California from competing for NCAA championships, citing that this law would give them an alleged unfair recruiting advantage (Redford, Deadspin). In reference to the Fair Pay to Play Act, Emmert wrote:

“We recognize all the efforts that have been undertaken to develop this bill in the context of complex issues related to the current collegiate model that has been the subject of litigation and much national debate. Nonetheless, when contrasted with current NCAA rules, as drafted the bill threatens to alter the principles of intercollegiate athletics materially 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”. 

(Source: Steve Berkowitz, USA Today)

In addition to Emmert’s not-so-subtle threat to ban California colleges from NCAA championship events, which would strip California schools of tens of millions of dollars in direct revenue, Pac-12 (Pacific-12 Conference) Commissioner, Larry Scott, also weighed in. Scott bluntly told the New York Times, “We’re firmly against anything that would lead to a pay-for-play system” (Thamel, New York Times). One additional dissenter, Washington State football head coach Mike Leach, who recently signed a $20 million extension with Washington State, said the following:

“I do think if everybody’s not given – in other words, if you’re creating a recruiting advantage beyond what already exists, I think it’s gonna be very difficult. I think there will be a huge imbalance and you’ll destroy college football”.

However, Leach didn’t stop there, offering these comments directly aimed at Californians and way beyond his disagreement with the legislative proposal:

“The state of California has trouble keeping their streets clean right now. So my thought is that they probably ought to focus on that. That’s just one man’s opinion. I’m sure I’m probably wrong. However, at the rate that California is handling their infrastructure and some of their other problems, I think we’ll see how they do with that before I think it would be beneficial for the legislature in California to enter into college football”. 

(Source: Andrew Joseph, USA Today)

If you look deeper into the comments of all three individuals quoted – who are firmly against the Fair Pay to Play Act but also all ‘coincidentally’ employed by the NCAA – none of them danced around their rationale behind opposing the bill, and each had a unique viewpoint. Emmert appears to be in the most legitimate position to build a narrative for coming out against this legislation. Emmert is essentially arguing that in his role as NCAA President, in theory, he has an obligation to defend the best interests of all NCAA sports, colleges, and student-athletes. This bill’s passage, while it may later prove to be the catalyst for broader change, would immediately give California schools a massive recruiting leg up over every other state’s colleges. Think about an example where LeBron James was forced to play some NCAA college basketball before heading to the NBA, can you deny he’d be overwhelmingly likely to go to a school where he’d have the ability to profit from his likeness? So Emmert is at least making the argument that every LeBron James caliber high school recruit will be extremely likely to play NCAA basketball at a California school. As mentioned, being the NCAA President allows him to make that argument without necessarily losing credibility and appearing hypocritical. The same can’t be said about the latter two examples.

NCAA President Mark Emmert (Photo by Matt York, Associated Press)

Though Larry Scott offered very little detail in his statement, which he read from a prewritten script, it was just another way to phrase the same narrative so many others who profit from NCAA athletics repeat: ‘we like the status quo and don’t want it to change.’  To be fair, why wouldn’t people like Scott enjoy the current status quo? Scott’s made right around $5 million each of the last three years; he’s the highest-paid commissioner in all of NCAA sports (Berkowitz, USA Today). The most interesting part about Scott’s comments though is he’s the commissioner of the Pac-12, which would stand to gain the most (by a landslide) should California’s Governor sign this bill into law. The Pac-12 is comprised of schools like Stanford, UCLA, USC, and the University of California at Berkeley; all Division 1 NCAA athletics powerhouses located in California. If California schools were to gain an unfair advantage and to assume they weren’t banned from any NCAA tournaments, Scott’s conference would dominate the country, his reputation in the sports world would be positively impacted, and his already bloated salary would inevitably increase even further. This begs the question of how much college athletics commissioners, staffers, coaches, and other NCAA officials actually care about their programs and also the student-athletes representing their institutions. 

Finally, we get to the notoriously outspoken Mike Leach, who never fails to throw himself in the middle of controversy. Leach starts by talking about unfair recruiting advantage, similar to Emmert, except a big part of his job is to be a better recruiter than fellow head coaches of rival schools. However, in fairness to Leach, he’s the coach of Washington State, which is apart of the Pac-12 but as they are obviously not located in the state of California, they’d be brutally negatively impacted by this legislation. His school’s football program, which isn’t typically a national title contender but very prestigious nonetheless, would effectively drop into total irrelevancy as they’d be tremendously overshadowed by the California schools in the Pac-12. Though shocking, Leach didn’t stop there. In fact, what he may have been thinking was a crude ‘joke’, was revealed about how many of the most influential people in NCAA sports – whether it be commissioners, head coaches, or even the NCAA President – feel deep down about the issue. Not only do head coaches like Leach not care about their players before or after their time at the school’s football program, but they also belittle the communities where they were not only raised but grew up playing the sports they’re recruiting them for. Does anyone really believe Mike Leach cares about California’s infrastructure, street cleanliness, and “other problems,” or is it more likely his stance has something to do with the $20 million extension Washington State gave him? Could that very well be an increasingly clear pattern; where just about everyone else involved in college athletics – including the fans, players, and many others – think this is a no brainer, while the millionaires who continue making fortunes off this broken system oppose changes to the status quo for completely disingenuous reasons? There doesn’t seem to be much of any real evidence pointing to another theory. 

Washington State Football Coach, Mike Leach – (Photo by Matt Gardner, 247Sports)

Since the debate surrounding NCAA student-athlete compensation has been building momentum and rapidly gaining attention, now more than ever as evidenced by California’s Fair Pay to Play Act voting result, we wanted to take a rare opportunity to give you our thoughts on this topic. NCAA President Mark Emmert has a valid point; if colleges in California only could allow their student-athletes to individually profit from their likeness at their discretion, it would give them an insurmountable recruiting advantage compared to every other state in the country. With that being said, we’re talking about an organization that’s now broken $1 billion in annual revenues, and it’s continuing to grow (Russo & Fenn, AP News). We mentioned Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott’s $5 million annual salary and Mike Leach’s $20 million extension (averaging out to $3.75 million annually). NCAA President Mark Emmert’s salary has grown on an impressive trajectory the past few years. Emmert earned $1.4 million in 2015, $2.05 million in 2016, $2.45 million in 2017, and $2.9 million in 2018 (Berkowitz, USA Today). It’s important to keep in mind this is only Mark Emmert’s salary earned as NCAA President. However, his status provides him with plenty of other revenue-generating opportunities. As an example, while Emmert’s 2017 NCAA annual salary was $2.45 million, he raked in over $3.9 million in total compensation. John Calipari, the highest-paid NCAA basketball head coach and Nick Saban, the highest-paid NCAA football head coach, will each make $8 million and $8.3 million next season, respectively (Hess, CNBC). Athletic Director’s at colleges with successful NCAA athletic programs, to no surprise, are millionaires as well. To name a couple of examples, Jack Swarbrick – AD of Notre Dame – earns $3.05 million annually, Jim Phillips of Northwestern earns $1.61 million annually, and Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin earns $1.55 million annually (James, 247Sports). In a billion-dollar industry where commissioners, head coaches, league officials, athletic directors, and others earn millions and millions of dollars – which wouldn’t exist without both the hard work and large sports marketing appeal of collegiate student-athletes – it seems really senseless and unjust that those who the revenue effectively comes from, don’t get practically any of it. The most sensible solution, which would still allow top NCAA head coaches and executives to earn millions of dollars, seems to be making California’s proposal a nationwide standard. That way, this deters any state’s colleges from gaining an unfair advantage, but at the same time, it allows student-athletes to profit from their likeness without a penalty. That doesn’t seem like much to ask for – in fact it almost seems like the bare minimum – yet it’s abundantly obvious there are a select group of people who adamantly don’t want to see collegiate student-athletes make any of the money they earn others.

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