If just over three years from now we look up and see college athletes tweeting about their endorsement deals and making money off their talent, Sen. Nancy Skinner should be the person they thank for making such a reality. 

The California state Democrat stands to be the person most responsible for blotting out the NCAA’s longstanding, restrictive amateurism model. She’s got the attention of the NCAA, not to mention the general sports public at large, a significant portion of whom have — with increasing volume — supported a college athlete’s right to earn income off their name, image and likeness. 

Weighty news emerged late Monday when California’s State Assembly voted 72-0 in favor of State Bill 206 — the Fair Pay to Play Act — proposed Skinner and Democratic Rep. Steven Bradford. The bill has been making its way through California’s legislature and stands to upend, at the very least, NCAA amateurism restrictions in that state.

When state legislators on both sides of the aisle vote unanimously for a bill, it’s a deafening testimony to the principles of the issue it’s attempting to undo. At this point, all that stands in the way of the bill becoming law is a circle-back rubber-stamp vote in California’s Senate (which could happen Tuesday) and a formal signature from California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), who has 30 days to sign it into law or veto the bill back to state legislators.

For decades, the NCAA’s rulebook has restricted its student-athletes from being paid, be it by their schools or — more practically — from outside entities who see value in high-profile or highly accomplished collegiate athletes.

California is on the precipice of altering the very dynamics of the NCAA’s distorted doctrines. And the state’s elected officials aren’t backing down to threats from Indianapolis. 

“I just want to say, ‘NCAA, don’t threaten California. Don’t threaten us,'” Democratic Sen. Sydney Kamlager-Dove said Monday, per USA Today. “Because we have formidable schools. We have formidable alumni. And we have formidable viewership. And we can leverage those things until 2023, when this bill takes effect. I’m sick of being leveraged by the NCAA on the backs of athletes who have the right to their own name and image.”

Kamlager-Dove’s words were in response to NCAA president Mark Emmert, who previously penned a letter of concern to California legislators, warning them of potential consequences of SB 206 becoming California law. Emmert warned that California institutions could put themselves in danger of ineligibility for NCAA championships; never mind that the NCAA “reluctantly” enacting a ban on California-based institutions could trigger serious class-action lawsuits.

If California-based college athletes were able to profit off their names, images and likenesses, NCAA bylaws — as they currently read — would activate ineligibility for all such players and their corresponding teams.

Is the NCAA going to hold firm to this? It’s hard to see that happening. 

With decades worth of anti-trust legal precedent potentially standing in the NCAA’s way, we could have a fascinating standoff, one that should no longer be of much debate yet remains ongoing because of the NCAA’s glacial pace to change. Consider this: College basketball’s coaching fraternity, by a wide margin, is in favor of the sport’s players having an opportunity to get paid. 

What if other states follow California’s lead? It would be no surprise to see that happen in the coming months. Colorado and Washington are already considering similar bills, according to the New York Times.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) has vocalized his distaste for the NCAA’s model, and other state representatives could see the public’s support over an issue like this and look to enact legislation. The topic has become so chic that U.S. presidential candidates have made their voices heard: Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) endorsed California’s bill just last week, and Democrat Andrew Yang has gone after the NCAA’s amateurism model for months. Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) is trying to bring these rights to student-athletes on a federal level in North Carolina.

NBA stars LeBron James and Draymond Green have sounded off their support as well.

California makes for the most interesting, if not perfect, trial ground. Twenty-six Division I basketball schools reside in the state, which is the most populous in our nation by a wide margin. At nearly 40 million residents, California has approximately 10 million more people than Texas, which is second in population. Four California universities are prominent Pac-12 members: UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal.

The universities don’t necessarily align themselves with SB 206, but that’s no matter: This is about the rights of student-athletes in the eyes of the state’s government. This is about the pragmatism of a free-market society in which players could theoretically earn money from outside entities. 

Going forward, if/when the bill becomes law, schools would not directly pay their players. From a financial standpoint, it keeps the NCAA and universities’ finances exactly as they stand now. Most importantly, the bill would give legal protection to all California-based student-athletes. Schools, and the NCAA, could not pull scholarships or suspend players for agreeing to endorsement deals or taking money from outside interests based on their talent and marketability. 

Jersey sales, autographs, sponsorships from local business, shoe deals, whatever. If their name, image or likeness is viewed as a profit-making asset by any entity, college athletes in the state of California will have the right to be paid off their talent and marketability.

It’s not just college football and college basketball players who stand to be paid what the market deems they’re worth. This could be as simple as UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi monetizing a YouTube account. You might recall Ohashi’s affable floor routine, which went viral and made national-news headlines earlier this year, has almost 60 million views on UCLA Athletics’ official channel

The law would formally initiate on Jan. 1, 2023. While that’s far off for the purposes of current and soon-to-be college athletes who are looking for such an opportunity, it’s actually a godsend for the NCAA. The organization, which is made up of nothing more than the schools and their respective presidents who opt in on this union of universities and athletics, has more than enough time to adjust to what California’s done and change its rulebook well before we get to 2023. 

California is affording the NCAA more than enough runway to get its bylaws adjusted and update its outdated rules. The organization has been around for almost 110 years, and it’s done a great job holding its ground on this battle to this point. But this seems as formidable a movement as it’s ever encountered. 

The irony to all the resistance from Indianapolis on this is that, ultimately, it will cost the NCAA nothing except inevitable billable hours for legal fees as it could easily try to take the issue to court. But UCLA’s star point guard or USC’s top running back or Stanford’s No. 1 volleyball player making money from outside interests won’t impact how much money UCLA, USC or Stanford bring in to their athletic departments. The NCAA is still going to make gobs off its men’s NCAA Tournament, the single-biggest profit-making event in college sports.

Coincidentally, the NCAA is expected to have a report submitted next month in which it — ideally — comes to conclusions on how to take the next steps, if any, on this issue. (The Commission on College Basketball suggested the NCAA delve deeper into this topic when it made its formal recommendations in April 2018.) Anything short of a soft embrace of what California is pursuing is likely to be met with louder and harsher backlash.

The NCAA has been marginally winning battles while losing the war on this issue for years. This feels like the time and seems like the story that may finally help it realize the inevitable can no longer be held off indefinitely. Athletes are going to be paid, and it feels like sooner is finally beating later.


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