Anyone who loves college sports must have conflicted feelings about the California governor’s signing into law Monday a measure allowing student-athletes to make endorsement deals and hire agents. On one hand, the training and physical rigors endured by college athletes would seem to justify their getting a cut of the financial rewards that public and private universities reap through successful athletic programs. On the other, such laws go against the arguably creaky belief in college athletics ensuing without the corrupting influence of more and more money.
Nor is this law evidence of liberalism or commercialism run amok in California where the Republicans and Democrats supported this legislation unanimously. In the conservative state of South Carolina, legislators contemplate similar legislation. A New York bill would set aside 15 percent of sports ticket sales for student-athletes. In some respects, all this may reflect the purest strain of tribalism that infects today’s politics: Is anything more tribal than blind support for one’s college football team, right or wrong, win or lose?
The California law, which doesn’t kick in till 2023, sets up a clash with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has strict rules about college athletes enriching themselves to the degree California legislators now envision. Employing the commerce clause of the Constitution, the NCAA could fight California and other states in the courts on the grounds this law will leave some states with unfair recruiting advantages. The NCAA has even threatened to expel any university athletic program that violates NCAA rules. We will see.
As all this unfolds, we should keep this much in mind: The days of George Gipp, Jim Thorpe and leather football helmets are over. College sports is Big Business and the California legislation simply questions who else deserves a stake. In the midst of the Art Briles/RG3 era, Baylor smartly expanded its athletic program and marketed it to rebrand a once-quiet Baptist campus as an aspiring research university with a harmonizing Christian imprint. Some might argue, too, that Baylor’s success for a time clouded its vision in other respects, contributing to a sexual-assault scandal involving (though not limited to) student-athletes.
The strong bipartisan shift toward compensating student-athletes — beyond everything now offered, from free food to a college education costing in the six figures — suggests the die is cast. The Pac-12 opposes any law allowing a student-athlete to market his or her name or likeness, insisting it will “lead to the professionalization of college sports and many unintended consequences” — no doubt. Wherever this dispute goes next — litigation or more legislation — all of us should wait a few weeks more for the NCAA to issue its own report on suggested reforms in this realm, something even California lawmakers acknowledge. Meanwhile, some of us will likely have to rejuggle our paradigms if we haven’t already. To quote Trib sportswriter Chad Conine, we now face the slow-moving Brexit of college athletics. In an age when norms and values are increasingly scrapped as old-fashioned and irrelevant, the tenet of amateur sports may be one more ready for the trash heap.