Fair Play For Play for Student Athletes: Will the NCAA Embrace or Reject?

Sarah Suddarth

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021

 On September 30, 2019, California signed into law the biggest change to college athletics in the modern era of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”). Senate Bill 206 will allow college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image, and likeness, as well as protect the athletes from sanctions by the NCAA for violations stemming from the profits. One of college athletics’ core tenants has been the amateurism of their athletes and the emphasis on scholarship. This monumental change will have far-reaching and lasting impact on college athletics and may disrupt the whole system as we know it.  

History of college athletics and the amateurism debate

For years, the model of college athletics has consistently been that student athletes are pseudo-employees of the University for which they are students. The college athlete is an amateur, meaning they do not perform their sport for monetary gain. The NCAA bylaw detailing amateurism provides some examples of situations that could compromise an athlete’s amateur status. These include receiving payment from a sports team to participate, receiving price money based on performance or finish in competition, and promoting or endorsing a commercial product or service.

This reality of the NCAA has been extremely divisive and the subject of much debate over the years. The proponents for amateurism in college athletics point to the tuition scholarships, cost of living stipends, preferential student status, and education. They argue that these athletes are already paid in a way. Athletes receive scholarships for tuition, room and board, books, and cost of living. They also point towards the perks that come along with being a student athlete such as the gear, the academic services, and the preferential student health services. Finally, the main point for this argument is that student athletes are being compensated by receiving an education.

In contrast, the movement for paying college athletes for their image and name has grown considerably in recent years, culminating with the passage of this California Bill. The justification for this is that these student athletes are earning their respective universities, as well as the NCAA, millions of dollars without seeing any of it in return. Another argument is that giving student athlete’s their compensation while in college will also serve as an incentive for them to finish their degree rather than leaving early to pursue professional sports for the paycheck.

The impact of Senate Bill 206

Although the talk of legislative action to address this hot-button topic is not new, California is the first state to take the historic step of passing the Bill. There was an immediate ripple effect throughout the country. States across the country have taken steps similar to California. To name a few, Minnesota plans to introduce a similar bill in 2020, Illinois introduced a House Bill that already has nine co-sponsors, and Nevada politicians went on record saying they will explore options similar to the bill passed in CA. New York made waves by introducing an even more aggressive bill. New York’s bill would require schools to take fifteen percent of all revenue earned from athletics ticket sales to be divided amongst student-athletes, in addition to the provisions passed in California. The more states that join in this coalition against the NCAA juggernaut, the more likely federal or nationwide policies will shift to fit the status quo.

The NCAA responded to the Bill by pointing out the big picture complications that will eventually follow. The letter by the NCAA Board of Governors expresses concern that this will eventually lead to the 58 NCAA California schools being unable to compete in NCAA Competitions. These competitions include the March Madness Tournament and the College Football Playoffs, as well as the general league conference games that lead up to the national stage competitions. The letter urged California to rethink the implementation of their Bill so as to not fracture the delicate bedrock of the existing college athletics governing system.

On the other hand, this shift in State legislature participation in the debate gives foundation to the possibility of a future where CA Senate Bill 206 becomes national rule. The letter from the NCAA Board did open the door for comprehensive change. It stated that a national model of collegiate sport requires mutually agreed-upon rules and they hope that California will be a partner in developing a fair pay for play approach for all 50 states.

The NCAA has the ability to set a national policy on this issue. New policies will alleviate the strain on the college athletics system from piecemeal laws by keeping it whole and uniform, as well as address concerns of student athlete exploitation. The NCAA will meet at the end of October to discuss changes to the amateurism rule. However, it is unlikely that policies similar to the California Bill will be in the discussion for several more years. The results of the October meeting may be the tipping point for state legislatures. Legislatures may throw their weight behind California to sway the NCAA, or maybe the conversations will be the catalyst for action on the federal level.