By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO – The rabid popularity of college sports has enriched universities, coaches and the NCAA thanks to ticket sales and billion-dollar TV deals over the decades, and it shows no signs of slowing.
Though the NCAA’s profits have spiked – it pays its president $3 million annually – rules restricting student-athletes from making money on their own name and athletic prowess have stagnated. Players’ images have been pasted on billboards, jerseys and inspired video games but they haven’t seen a dime.
But the self-governing body’s stranglehold over its players’ wallets could be tested under legislation advanced Tuesday by California lawmakers that would allow student-athletes to sign with agents and cash in on endorsements.
Senate Bill 206’s author, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, says the NCAA and California universities should no longer be the sole beneficiaries of packed stadiums and merchandise sales.
“It provides our college athletes the same rights as Olympic athletes, to receive a financial gain from their name, image and likeness through sponsorships and endorsements,” Skinner told the Assembly Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism and Internet Media Committee.
Labor unions and student associations are backing SB 206, while the NCAA and California’s largest public and private universities are opposed. If passed, the measure would go into effect in 2023.
Opponents are sounding the alarm that if California athletes are able to accept endorsements, the NCAA will respond by banning teams from high-profile sporting events, such as the Rose Bowl or the NCAA Final Four. They say Skinner’s attempt to protect student-athletes could have the unintended consequence of pushing them away from prestigious universities like UCLA and University of Southern California.
LaTanya Sheffield, who coaches track and field at California State University, Long Beach, testified that SB 206 might benefit male athletes playing high-profile sports, but not members on her team.
“This bill immediately divides,” Sheffield said. “It’s men football, men basketball, men baseball that will literally get the immediate advantage.”
Representatives from Stanford University, USC, University of California and California State University systems testified in opposition of SB 206 Tuesday at the state Capitol.
The debate over allowing student-athletes to take sponsorships isn’t a new one, but Skinner’s proposal is moving the discussion forward.
The NCAA in May created a task force to consider changing its rules regarding name, image and likeness, pushed into action by SB 206 and a similar proposal by U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina. The NCAA is imploring the Legislature to delay acting on the bill until after it releases its findings on potential rule changes in October.
“Even though SB 206 has a deferred effective date of 2023, passage of the bill now will create confusion among prospective and current student-athletes and our membership,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a letter to the Assembly committee. “The impact of a prematurely passed bill would be difficult to untangle.”
Skinner’s bill cleared the state Senate with bipartisan support in May and will next be heard by the Assembly Higher Education Committee. A similar measure stalled last year in the state Senate.
During the 75-minute hearing, Skinner accused the NCAA of threatening California schools and spreading misinformation about her bill. She said there would be a public revolt if any other billion-dollar industry was operating and profiting off students like the NCAA is.
“There would be universal outcry and yet these are the conditions that NCAA has set up,” Skinner said.