This Saturday, Stanford will host No. 15 Washington in one of the biggest college football games this weekend. Perhaps college football fans should enjoy it, because what we learned this week is that if the NCAA and the state of California can't figure out a compromise in the next few years, there might not be many more games like it left.
California’s landmark “Fair Pay to Play Act,” signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom while literally sitting next to LeBron James, is the strongest blow yet to the increasingly wobbly foundation of college athletics. But buried in the bill is a lifeline the NCAA can use to save itself. The real question now is whether it takes it.
The bill does not require colleges to pay their athletes, which is the ultimate goal of advocates like James and others. Nor does it allow players to get paid by corporations who want to use their name and likeness, because that is already allowed; this is America, after all. But it is a perfectly reasonable first step.
What the bill does is ban California colleges from punishing players who enter into these types of corporate sponsorships. Currently, if Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm wants to do an advertisement for a local car dealership, or Illinois point guard Ayo Dosumnu tries to get a cut of the sales of his own jersey, the NCAA would ban each of them from competition. But now in California, that ban, or any other punishment, will not be allowed.
What the bill does is ban California colleges from punishing players who enter into these types of corporate sponsorships.
It is bizarre that this law had to be passed in the first place; if a college student doing anything other than playing sports wants to sell his or her name and likeness, they can. And obviously this happens all the time. It’s only because college athletics, at their heart, have become a price-fixing scheme — one that’s bringing in billions and billions of dollars every year, none of which are going to the players themselves — that you’d even think to have to add such an addendum. That the California bill has plunged college athletics and the NCAA into an existential crisis — that money is supposed to go to coaches and administrators! — is the fault of college athletics and the NCAA, not California.
The bill allots for this existential crisis, though, and gives the NCAA an out: None of these changes will go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023. In a sane world, the NCAA would recognize reality — and recognize the momentum that these changes have — and start figuring out a way to alter its rules before other states start passing their own laws. (Florida already has one working its way through the legislative process.)
Suffice it to say: So far, that is not what the NCAA is doing.
The NCAA has already started its fight and appeals against the legislation. Some inside the NCAA establishment, like The Athletic’s Seth Davis notes, think the organization might win. But in lieu of that, the NCAA is attempting to exert what power it does have. It may end up kicking California schools out of the NCAA, and in that battle, it has some allies; Ohio State’s athletic director has already said it would be unlikely to schedule games against California schools if they’re going to be playing by different rules than the rest of the country.
If California schools weren’t a part of the NCAA, they’d miss out on all that comes with big-time college athletics postseason play, bowl games and, potentially, cuts of the pie from billion-dollar television rights fees for marquee sports like football and basketball. Would that really happen? Would the NCAA really go without UCLA and USC and Stanford? That it’s even considering such a move, let along threatening it, speaks to how much digging in of heels is going on.
It is worth noting that the California bill merely formalizes a practice that is already happening under the table. Big-dollar boosters have been funneling money to top-tier college athletes for decades — SB Nation’s Steven Godfrey had a fantastic series about this years ago, describing college football’s “bag men.” All the California law would do is make that process more transparent.
Would big-dollar schools and their athletes benefit more from these deals than athletes at smaller-market schools? Of course. It’d be roughly equivalent to the same benefit they have right now. And it would be out in the open. Heck, it would give the NCAA something new to regulate!
But the NCAA is too tied to tradition, and far too beholden to the school administrators who don’t want to share the spoils. The NCAA has never been as openly challenged as it is being challenged these days; just after the NCAA announced a probe into the relationship between Kansas basketball and Adidas, Jayhawks coach Bill Self posted a video of himself wearing a big Adidas T-shirt and a necklace with a dollar sign hanging from it.
In the past, coaches would cower under the might of the NCAA. Now they mock the very institution. They sense that the NCAA is losing power and influence. And the NCAA’s attempts to hang onto that power feel increasingly desperate. The NCAA can help itself, and the existential peril now threatening the entire collegiate athletic system, by getting out of its own way. It may have just one more chance to be on the right side of history.
CORRECTION (Oct. 6, 2019, 2:48 p.m. ET): A previous version of this story misspelled the first name of Georgia’s quarterback. He is Jake Fromm, not Nick.