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SB 206: Fair Pay to Play

In a 66-0 vote on September 9, 2019, the California State Assembly passed a bill entitled SB 206 that would allow college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness, effective January 1, 2023. Governor Newsom then had 30 days to either sign or veto the bill. If the governor did not take any action within that 30-day period, SB 206 would become law (USA Today).

This legislation recently garnered national attention due to the public support of NBA superstar LeBron James and, via a re-tweet, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (Twitter). A new college-athlete advocacy group known as the “College Athlete Advocacy Initiative” also voiced its support, including by means of a viral video that satirized a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) advertisement (USA Today). There has also been intense lobbying in opposition to the bill, including from the NCAA, the Pac-12, and several university officials associated with public and private schools throughout the state of California.

The legislature was not fazed by this pressure while voting on SB 206. In June, NCAA President Mark Emmert sent a letter to the chairs of two Assembly committees, implying that if SB 206 becomes law in the state of California, California schools could potentially be prohibited from participating in NCAA championships going forward. California has more than 20 Division I schools, four of which are members of the Pac-12 Conference, but SB 206 still passed unanimously (USA Today). The letter was likely a strong-arm effort on the part of the NCAA to enforce its established, time-honored rules and traditions, which SB 206 rejects. It may also have been motivated by a fear that SB 206 could incite similar legislation in other states and render the NCAA’s rules concerning compensating college athletes unenforceable or meaningless. Unfortunately for the NCAA, that is exactly what is happening.

Politicians in several other states, including Colorado, Maryland, South Carolina, Washington, and New York, have followed California’s lead and are discussing potential new laws that would change how college athletes are compensated. North Carolina Congressman Mark Walker has proposed changing federal laws to initiate a similar effect across the United States. New York Senator Kevin Parker proposed a bill the week of September 16, 2019 that took it a step further: paying student-athletes directly. He has since added an amendment requiring college athletic departments to give student-athletes a 15% share of annual revenue (ESPN).

This hotly contested legislation raises some questions. Is paying college athletes fair? Will doing so eradicate the distinction between amateur college sports and professional leagues? Will it reduce the grit exhibited by college athletes in their attempts to get drafted, thereby reducing the level of competition in college sports? Perhaps athletes that receive significant compensation will experience a reduction in motivation to become professional athletes, because the money they receive as college athletes is enough to help them care for their families, afford the luxury items they daydream about, and feel financially settled. Should scholarship money currently given to student-athletes be reallocated to non-athlete students who are deserving of financial assistance? And if Senator Parker’s amendment gets passed, should each student-athlete truly be paid equally when some generate more revenue for their school than others?

In the coming months, the above questions and more will be asked of both legislatures and voters. On September 30, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on a special episode of UNINTERRUPTED’s The Shop. He remarked, “[c]olleges and universities reap billions from these student athletes’ sacrifices and success but block them from earning a single dollar. That’s a bankrupt model – one that puts institutions ahead of the students they are supposed to serve” (CA.gov). With the governor’s signature on SB 206, California will perhaps become the first experiment in the national movement to pay college athletes, a movement that has been sparking debate for decades.

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