California is known for prepping its residents to be earthquake-ready, and it’s been a while since a major one hit the Golden State on the Pacific coast. Last week, however, California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a seismic shift through the NCAA, equivalent to a 7 on the Richter scale.
Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, a bill that will allow college athletes in his state to profit off their likenesses. The bill will go into effect in 2023, and this legislation could dismantle the model of amateurism and commercialism the NCAA has promoted since the early 1950s, when TV deals for college sports first emerged. Lawmakers in other states are following California’s lead, which include Ohio, Florida, New York, Kentucky and South Carolina.
I would argue that this day has been looming for the NCAA the past 35 years — since the Supreme Court ruled that its TV football contracts restricted trade. Major conferences, presently known as the Power Five, responded to this ruling by constructing their own media deals. As money began to pour into conference coffers, the ’80s brought attention to declining academic performance of African-American athletes heavily represented in the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball at Division I schools.
As a college student sports writer during this time, I vividly remember the debates surrounding Proposition 48, which raised admission requirements for athletes attending Division I institutions. It was obvious even back then that the NCAA was in a quandary trying to balance its profits with its high standards for student athletes. Major cheating and pay-for-play scandals surfaced in the ’80s and ’90s at powerhouse football schools like the University of Miami and the University of Alabama. Currently, the University of Kansas is under investigation for violation of NCAA rules in its relationship with apparel sponsor Adidas. A former Adidas consultant has admitted to trying to give the Jayhawks an advantage in basketball recruiting.
The NCAA clears annual revenue of just over $1 billion, so the temptation to cheat at top-tier programs is no surprise. Because an enormous chunk of this money comes from the March Madness tournament and college football post-season championships and bowl games, many former and current pro athletes use this as justification that college athletes should be able to benefit financially from their star power.
I have always been a little torn on this issue as a college football fan and as a professor on the academic side. With the NCAA banking serious cash, many people feel the title of student-athlete is hypocritical, but I have worked with student-athletes who were true scholars and took their coursework seriously. Regarding the California bill, I agree with former University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker, who tweeted that the legislation would cause division among teams. This is definitely possible. Think, for example, how a third-string offensive lineman might react to the star quarterback’s cash app overflowing from endorsement deals.
I understand the importance of money for college athletes, especially those from poverty-stricken backgrounds. But developing athletes’ character also matters, and this is tied to the culture of athletic programs. Permitting young elite college athletes who appear destined for the NFL or NBA to profit off of their fame will put an added responsibility on coaches and athletic administrators to educate them on how to handle it. A strong emphasis would need to be placed on paying it forward and using their God-given talents and resources to help others.
With greed being the foundation of so many college athletic scandals, it will also be imperative to warn student-athletes about covetousness and instruct them not to chase after riches. If they are only focused on pursuing money, they will never be satisfied, as an adage in Ecclesiastes 5:10 teaches.
The Fair Pay to Play Act, if regulated properly, would allow many celebrated athletes who bring in millions to their respective schools to be compensated in California, and more states will be on board to pass similar measures. My primary concern, though, is the culture that nurtures them. If the culture of an athletic program is bad, this bill could be a disaster for athletes in revenue-producing sports.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc