The Fair Pay to Play Act and Dignity in College Athletics

California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law on Monday, is only radical because it seeks to change the antiquated world of American college sports.

The Act has two main features. First, it guarantees that college athletes in California can’t lose their NCAA eligibility if they receive compensation for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Second, it permits college athletes to hire an expert—an agent—to help him or her find and negotiate opportunities.

I know this world all too well. I played basketball at UCLA in the 1990s and loved almost every minute of it. I went on to play in the NBA but my true passion stayed with college basketball. After a decade in pro hoops, I retired in 2005. I then enjoyed a quiet life with my wife and three children.

A few years later, I saw myself featured in a college basketball video game that sold for $60. I hadn’t asked to be in the game. And no one had offered to pay me, or any other current or former players who were “in the game” as the game’s advertisement boasted. That experience led to me to bring a lawsuit against the NCAA. We battled in court for seven years and our side ultimately prevailed. This wasn’t about money. This was about taking someone’s identity and profiting from it. And it was about changing the rules to not let that happen again.

I’m no detective, but the clues seem to say college players are used to profit others.

You might say, “but the college athletes receive full scholarships.” You’d be right some of the time, but far more often wrong. The vast majority of athletic scholarships to college are partial, not full and they require renewal every year. In most cases, parents are still footing most of the bill.

You might wonder how the quality of college education for athletes will be impacted by the Act.  As a college graduate, the husband of an educator and the father of three college-educated children, I care far more about academics than athletics.

First, the current situation is not exactly encouraging or deserving of protection. There have been many academic controversies in recent years where colleges take extraordinary steps to keep their star athletes eligible.

Second, ask yourself this: If a college athlete signs an endorsement deal, won’t he or she be more likely to attend class, since if their grades fail, they’ll be kicked off the team and they’ll lose their endorsement deal? Also, won’t college athletes be more inclined to stay in college since they are gaining from endorsements while there?

If anything, the Act will probably help academics.

Even then, the Fair Pay to Play Act has nothing to do with athletic scholarships. And it wouldn’t take a dime away from schools. It’s all about the relationship between college players and companies that would like to pay for their endorsement or sponsorship. Video game publishers. Clothing and sneaker companies. Local businesses.

Some people complain that I “took away” their favorite video games. They couldn’t be more wrong. I stopped those games from illegally stealing people’s identities. If the NCAA let college players sign contracts with those video game publishers, you’d have your games back, too.

It goes deeper, still. As a black man, I’m aware that most of the revenue generated in college sports comes from basketball and football—two sports where African Americans are disproportionately represented. These athletes stand to gain from the Act and laws like it. I don’t think NCAA officials are intentionally racist. But I’m not sure if they genuinely care about race, and that is worrisome in its own light.

It isn’t just black men who stand to gain from the Act. Think of the college athletes, men and women of all races and ethnicities, who play sports where there aren’t pro leagues waiting for them. Or those athletes who might be special college players but who won’t make it to the next level.

Their moment to capitalize is while they’re in college. Not later on.

Let it happen. Treat college athletes with basic dignity. Fans will still watch games. Schools will still make a lot of money. And the scales of justice will tip in the right direction.

Ed O’Bannon, a former NBA player and Division I college athlete, tells his story in Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA (Diversion Books, 2018).

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