Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which says, starting in 2023, California universities and colleges can’t prohibit athletes from profiting from their likeness.
While California was moving forward with its legislation, North Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Walker had already introduced a bill in March that would do much the same thing.
In March, Walker, who represents the 6th Congressional District, filed the Student-Athlete Equity Act, which changes the definition of a qualified amateur sports organization in the tax code to remove the restriction on student-athletes being compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.
In response to Walker’s legislation, the NCAA formed a task force to study possible rule changes, though many are skeptical about whether it will recommend any changes.
What’s interesting about the movement is that it’s a bipartisan effort — at least on some levels.
California’s law was passed in a state where the Republican Party is almost extinct. At the federal level, Walker is a Republican, and his co-sponsor is Louisiana Democrat Cedric Richmond.
Walker is planning a rally in Washington on Oct. 16 with former Duke basketball player Jay Bilas, along with other lawmakers, former athletes and “thought leaders.”
California and the NCAA are in a standoff.
The NCAA has said the state’s colleges and universities could be banned from championships because the law would give their schools an unfair advantage.
But could the NCAA really exclude California – the largest state and one of the largest economies in the world – from its championships?
And will other states follow California’s lead — just as states did last decade in legalizing same-sex marriage?
California’s law and Walker’s legislation are different in how they get there, but both would allow student-athletes to make money from their image.
Neither piece of legislation requires the NCAA to pay athletes.
I spoke with Walker earlier this year. Here’s what he said about his bill – and how it would impact college athletics:
“This isn’t a game plan or an instruction manual for how the NCAA should handle things. It’s basically unwinding an injustice that’s been going on for decades.
“There is a misnomer that we’re asking the NCAA or the schools to pay the athletes. Nothing could be further from the truth. And here’s the thing, 99% of these kids aren’t going to get drafted, so they’ll never receive a single dollar. So, we should not be taking away their image and their likeness when they have opportunity to profit from it.”
A student-athlete “would have access to the free market like every other student — like every other American. It is only the student-athlete that has to sign over a moratorium to their likeness and their image. That’s grossly problematic.”
Much of the media speculation has focused on the most famous college athletes, and how much money players like former Duke basketball player Zion Williamson could have made in college.
Walker said that’s true. But he said anonymous athletes would benefit:
“It could be a backup QB at Elon or North Carolina A&T and go to their little restaurant appearance. That could be their $100 appearance fee. With a lot of these athletes, you are somebody somewhere. If you come from Dunn, N.C., or Albemarle … that car dealership wants you to come and sign autographs, then you can do it. It’s a free market.
“We think it’s an incentive to stay in school. Forty-five percent of these athletes come from underprivileged backgrounds. For these student-athletes who struggle to even take their family out to eat on a road game, this would give them some disposable income.
“It doesn’t have to be the athletes we see on TV. If you have a student-athlete who is a girls' volleyball captain, then they can maybe make a $100 a week to give a speech. It’s mind-boggling that we have this moratorium.”
Walker’s bill would let a student-athlete sign their own shoe contract, for instance, even if their basketball coach already had a shoe contract with a different company.
The student-athlete “could sign a contract with Nike or whoever — just like someone on music scholarship could release a record with RCA or someone and make royalties from something like that,” Walker said.
The California law, however, says that students won’t be allowed to make deals that “conflict with a provision of the athlete’s team contract,” according to The New York Times.
That means an athlete couldn’t have his or her own shoe contract if the coach had a team-wide shoe contract that prohibited any players from having their own deals. But it’s easy to envision a coach at a top basketball school allowing his players to have their own deals as a way to entice them to come.
Walker says he’s willing to accept limits that could prohibit an athlete from being paid to appear in a university’s name or logo – unless given permission.
“If NCAA comes back and says, you can do that but you can’t do anything with a university logo, we get that. That makes sense. We don’t want to be too prescriptive,” he said.
Critics have said that allowing athletes to strike endorsement deals would flood college sports with money, and give large universities an even larger advantage.
“The NCAA came to my office [earlier this year] and said, ‘What are you trying to do here? This will open things up for corruption.’ And on the very next day, the LSU basketball coach was caught on audiotape discussing a transaction with one of the handlers who gets paid. So don’t act like there isn’t already some kind of middle man out there getting his pockets lined. To me, let’s kick the middle man out of it, and let’s be transparent.
“This could be similar to what has worked with the Olympic mode. People said [allowing professionals] would ruin Olympic sports. It’s done anything but.”
This article was originally published in WFAE's newsletter Inside Politics with Steve Harrison. To get more insightful political coverage like this first each week sign up to receive Inside Politics.