Politics & Government

California says college athletes can earn money off name. Will NC, other states follow?

Updated, Oct. 1 with statement from ACC commissioner John Swofford.

College student-athletes in California will be allowed to profit off their name, image and likeness beginning in 2023 under a bill signed into law by the state’s governor Monday.

The bill, a first of its kind in the nation, runs counter to current NCAA rules, which do not allow student-athletes to generate any outside income related to their status as college athletes. The top college sports organization has loosened rules in recent years, allowing schools to provide “cost of attendance” stipends and provide travel costs for family members to some championship events.

But current North Carolina basketball players being paid to hawk burgers from a Chapel Hill establishment or Duke basketball players collecting a fee for appearing in a Nike commercial or N.C. State football players signing autographs for money at a local car dealership would be a seismic change in the way the NCAA operates.

It appears that change is coming. California, the nation’s most populous state, won the race to be first, but several other states are considering legislation, including South Carolina, New York, Washington and Colorado. More states could follow.

In North Carolina, lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow athletes at state schools to receive legal protections, The News & Observer reported previously. The bill, Senate Bill 335, did not call for student-athletes to be paid. It remains in committee.

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a Greensboro Republican, introduced legislation in March that would prohibit the NCAA from stopping athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness. Walker’s Student-Athlete Equity Act would amend the tax code “to prohibit qualified amateur sports organizations from prohibiting or substantially restricting the use of an athletes name, image, or likeness, and for other purposes.

Walker said in a statement Monday he supported the move by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, to sign the state’s Fair Pay to Play Act. He said the bill “will lead to breaking down this monopoly.”

“For far too long, the NCAA has arbitrarily set a sham definition of amateurism to strip college athletes of the rights to their own names and self-worth, only promising to create do-nothing commissions when others highlight their exploitation,” Walker said in the statement.

His bill has three co-sponsors — two Democrats and one Republican. Walker said he has had discussions with the Democratic chairman and Republican ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee about getting a hearing for his bill. He said the publicity from the California legislation has led other lawmakers to approach him, asking for more information about his legislation.

“There’s no way one state could have this and maybe two or three other states and not the other states. The recruiting advantage it could give USC or UCLA. This is why this has got to get fixed,” Walker said.

Former Duke basketball star Jay Bilas, an ESPN announcer and outspoken critic of the NCAA’s current rules governing athlete compensation, will be on Capitol Hill on Oct. 16, Walker told The News & Observer Monday. Bilas is expected to meet with members of Congress in support of Walker’s bill. Walker said he first spoke with Bilas about two years ago about his legislation.

“Over the next 30 days, this is going to be very pivotal especially with Bilas coming in,” Walker said.

NCAA and conferences react

The NCAA, in a statement released Monday, argued for a national standard rather than “a patchwork of different laws from different states that will make unattainable the goal of providing a fair and level playing field” for its programs and student-athletes. The NCAA has a working group studying the issue of state and federal legislation surrounding name, image and likeness. The group is supposed to release its findings in October.

“As a membership organization, the NCAA agrees changes are needed to continue to support student-athletes, but improvement needs to happen on a national level through the NCAA’s rules-making process. Unfortunately, this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses, and not just in California,” the NCAA said in the statement.

“We will consider next steps in California while our members move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education.”

Art Chase, Duke’s director of sports information, told the N&O in an email Monday that school officials have been ”following the issue and look forward to getting more information and analysis on its potential impact.” Steve Kirschner, senior associate athletic director for communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the school is keeping an eye on the issue “like every other school.”

ACC commissioner John Swofford issued a statement on Oct. 1, calling name, image and likeness“a complicated issue that needs to be addressed holistically, and not state by state.” Four North Carolina schools are members of the 15-school ACC.

“Several recent changes approved by schools and conferences have led to additional benefits, which is necessary as we continue to be progressive in modernizing and enhancing the benefits provided to every student-athlete, while staying within the principles of amateurism. Our country is unique in annually providing hundreds of thousands of students the opportunity to combine higher education with athletics,” Swofford said.

“We will continue to have discussions about this issue and the impact it will have on our membership.”

The Pac-12 Conference, which has four California schools among its membership, said in a statement that it was “disappointed” in the bill and “believes it will have very significant negative consequences for our student-athletes and broader universities in California. This legislation will lead to the professionalization of college sports.”

Former Duke basketball star Jay Williams, now an ESPN analyst, read the letter from the Pac-12 in a video posted to Twitter by The Boardroom and rebutted each of its points. Williams’ No. 22 jersey is hung at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“It’s already been professionalism. It’s been professionalism for everyone else: for the coaches, for the athletic directors, for the assistant coaches, for everybody else but the players,” Williams said in the video. “My jersey sales alone did close to $2 million my last year in school. I received no percentage of that, none at all.”

The Southeastern Conference, a football powerhouse that includes top-ranked Alabama, issued a statement from commissioner Greg Sankey to Sports Illustrated.

“There is meaningful concern related to the inherent consequences that will arise when individual states unilaterally alter a set of rules that apply to student-athletes and universities throughout the country,” the league said in the statement, adding that “there is a need to engage in a thoughtful discourse.”

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.