California Bill

Just over one week ago, California governor Gavin Newsom signed California Senate Bill 206 into law. The bill is better known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, and it has the potential to dramatically alter the NCAA’s approaches to amateurism and student-athlete compensation.

Throughout its history, the NCAA has held firm to the belief that amateurism is a sacred, venerated object and is not to be taken lightly. Separating amateur life in college and professional life after has seemed to be the NCAA’s equivalent of keeping church and state separate. One key difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur is not paid for their work.

Instead of changing the rules to force the schools to pay student-athletes out of the athletic budget or the rules regarding contact with boosters, the California bill targets the NCAA’s amateurism rule. It would allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness by signing with an agent who would pursue business deals for the athlete.

When the legislation goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, it will be illegal for California schools to change an athlete’s amateurism and eligibility status or revoke the athlete’s scholarship for signing with an agent.

Currently, that goes against the NCAA rules and regulations about amateurism. Hiring an agent, or having basically any non-coincidental contact with one, before leaving school has been considered a violation of the rules and led to a revocation of amateur status.

While perhaps legal after jumping through some loopholes with the NCAA, having a job while in season is all but impossible for a student-athlete. Even off-season demands are expansive, with training starting not long after the season ends, leaving little time for work around that and school.

How nice would it be, then, for a popular athlete to earn some money by doing a photoshoot with a local charity organization or featuring in an advertisement for a local restaurant or car dealership? Such things would consume minimal time and could be worked in around the athlete’s schedule. This is what CSB206 is trying to accomplish in California.

CSB206 is an attempt to help college athletes in California capitalize on their present fame and make the most of their college experience. After January 2023 when the law takes effect (pending an all but assured NCAA appeal), athletes in the Golden State will be allowed to hire agents to make business deals, similar to professional athletes.

Should such a law come to Nebraska, the number of potential deals for student-athletes would be enormous.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the Davis twins or the Daniels brothers in a McDonald’s Big Mac Sack campaign. Likewise for Wan’Dale Robinson highlights mixed in a driving montage commercial for, say, a Nissan Juke.

Think about Runza, a Nebraska original. Now, imagine Ashland’s Ben Stille dipping onion rings, Norfolk’s Lane McCallum coolly flipping burgers, or Scottsbluff’s Garrett Nelson rushing an order to a table, eye black and all. 

Lauren Stivrins has become well-known for her powerful kills on the “Stivrins Slide.” Of all people, Pella Windows and Doors of Lincoln would look at her as an expert on how things slide, like new doors to a patio, for instance.

What the new legislation in California does is allow athletes to profit off their name when it is most profitable. Athletic careers do not last forever. The majority of athletes worldwide end their playing careers after they graduate from college. Only around 2% of NCAA athletes turn pro and play in major American sports leagues, where there is the most money to be made and the most comforts afforded. Because of that, California legislators are seeking to allow athletes the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of their successes while they have the ability. 

Such changes would immediately affect recruiting. Top schools have connections and sponsorship with top companies, meaning they can often make the best pitches to present to prospective players.

This process would likely not affect every student-athlete, but primarily the highest-rated ones. It does companies little good to make promises and deliver a two- or three-star athlete money, cars or appearances, because the return on their investment would be minimal. Instead, the vast majority of the offers would be made to top players, those whose name, image and likeness would attract the most eyeballs and customers.

In some ways, the gap in time between passing laws in different states could widen the gap between perennial powers in one state and languishing losers in another. If one state’s legislature passes a law similar to California’s and another state’s doesn’t, universities in the states that passed such a law have an inherent advantage over those universities whose states do not pass a law.

For some states, following California’s lead is a no-brainer. Ten states have senators proposing or drafting similar legislation, according to a CBS Sports report. Those states are Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington.

Looking at these states, a common theme is apparent: multiple national brand-name programs. The list of Florida schools is expansive. Kentucky has Kentucky and Louisville basketball. New York has Saint John’s and Syracuse basketball. Pennsylvania has Pittsburgh and Penn State football. South Carolina features South Carolina and Clemson football.

Other states like North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming may not feel the need to pass a law because such schools rarely receive commitments from top prospects. North Dakota State and South Dakota State are perennial FCS powers, while Wyoming competes in the Mountain West. Such programs do not compete for recruits with Alabama or Clemson, but instead with lower-profile FBS schools.

Many of these situations appear in the Midwest. Take the example of Nebraska’s Luke Reimer. The Lincoln, Nebraska native was committed to South Dakota State as an athlete, but eventually decommitted to attend Nebraska, where he walked on and has played on special teams.

Had South Dakota passed a law like California’s, are the odds better that Reimer stays committed to the Jackrabbits? It’s impossible to say, but the odds of Reimer becoming a star and inking deals seem to be much higher in Brookings, South Dakota. Passing such laws can equal the playing field for lower-budget athletic programs and lure some athletes away from bigger schools simply because there is more on the table for them.

Perhaps potential deals lead Reimer to attend the FCS school, but maybe Nebraska comes calling eventually (as it did) and Reimer turns SDSU down anyway, regardless of any potential deals. Having the law before a neighboring state gives these lower-budget schools at least a potential advantage over others. 

Programs like Nebraska and West Virginia find themselves in a different conundrum. These schools are essentially the only show in the state, so these universities could, hypothetically, hold their state legislators and their board of regents hostage and force them to pass a similar law.

Without such laws, the universities could argue they are at such an extreme competitive disadvantage in recruiting that the athletic budgets could collapse because recruits could look to other places so the teams would not be as competitive and the university’s crown jewel could lose its luster. If the universities are struggling, the states are in precarious economic positions.

One thing to keep in mind through all the discourse is that this way of business is already happening as evidenced by the recent FBI investigations into certain college basketball programs.

 The California legislation would bring these deals that are currently conducted in the shadows into the light. Coaches, athletes, their families and agents would all benefit from less secrecy and more transparency. Schools have to know they’re getting outbid by others for the services of top players right now, so being able to see what other athletes are getting would help other schools understand how to appeal to these athletes, even if offering similar deals is unattainable.

Nebraska legislators have not had any reported conversations about proposing such a bill in the state. While they may be happening, being too late to the party could put the state’s flagship university behind the sticks in recruiting. Not acting could also take money out of the pockets of some of the university’s more marketable current athletes.

The opportunity is there for Nebraska lawmakers to provide more ways for the university’s most marketable programs and athletes to put themselves in the limelight and bring positive attention to build their respective brands and capitalize on their strengths while they persist.