California Currents

Should college athletes profit from their prowess? NCAA says no, but California may say yes

A California bill would let student athletes like former Stanford volleyball star Hayley Hodson capitalize on their names and images. Hodson was sidelined by a sports injury before she could profit from hers. (CALmatters photo by Al Chang, isiphotos.com)

Hayley Hodson’s volleyball career took off when she was still in high school, with an invitation to compete on the U.S. Women’s National Team. As she traveled the world winning medals, the Newport Beach student took care not to run afoul of NCAA eligibility rules barring prospective college athletes from accepting financial compensation, her sights still set on playing for a top school. She turned down an endorsement deal with a sunglasses brand and the stipend offered to her teammates, she says, telling herself there would be time later to play professionally.

But later never came for Hodson, who suffered a career-ending head injury on the court during her freshman year at Stanford.

“My dreams of playing in the Olympics are over,” Hodson, 22, said in an email. “It has been a devastating and difficult, not to mention expensive, journey.”

That’s how Hodson found herself testifying this spring in the California Senate in support of the “Fair Pay to Play Act,” which would allow student athletes to profit from the use of their name, image or likeness. Authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, the bill would directly contradict NCAA policies enforcing amateurism in college sports, and is the latest front in an ongoing battle over student athlete compensation.

Past controversies have focused on whether men’s football and basketball stars should share in the revenue they generate for what has become a multi-billion-dollar college sports industry. Skinner, however, is making the novel argument that the students most likely to benefit from her bill are those on the lower rungs of the athletic-industrial complex — female athletes, those in low-profile sports, and even community college players. Those students, she says, often don’t receive athletic scholarships and might never go pro.

“While they’re in college is the time when their reputation is the largest, their athletic prowess is the greatest, and they haven’t been injured yet,” Skinner said.

Female athletes and those who play lower profile sports, such as popular UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, would gain from the proposed “Fair Pay to Play Act,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner says. (Photo via Creative Commons)

The NCAA set up a working group in May to study whether to change its policies on paid endorsements, and the University of California, California State University, and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities — the trade group representing the state’s private colleges — have all come out against Skinner’s proposal. The schools cite concerns that their athletes could be barred from competition if California takes action before the NCAA finishes its review.

UC also raised another fear.

“Allowing student-athletes to receive compensation from outside sponsors would jeopardize the University’s existing sponsorship agreements, leading to budget cuts …,” the university’s legislative director wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

Sports are big business at the University of California and other colleges with Division 1 teams. The two highest-earning employees at UC in 2017 were athletic coaches, each making more than $2.5 million that year.

Some athletes “don’t have enough money to go home and see their family, yet they see their coaches driving away in $100,000 cars,” said Eddie Comeaux, a professor of higher education at UC Riverside who studies college athletics.

A lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the use of his likeness in a video game without compensation led to a 2015 court ruling that the NCAA must allow schools to cover athletes’ full cost of attendance. Scholarships now can include books, transportation and unlimited meal plans.

Not every athlete benefits, though. Just over half of Division 1 players receive athletic scholarships, according to the NCAA.

At California’s community colleges, football players from around the country flock to a separate league, hoping to be noticed by a Division 1 recruiter while they work on their academic or athletic qualifications. Out-of-state students pay higher tuition at community colleges, as much as $7,000 per year depending on the campus.

A lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the use of his likeness without compensation led to a 2015 court ruling that the NCAA must allow schools to cover athletes’ full cost of attendance. (Photo by Jack Rosenfeld via Creative Commons)

“At first it was real tough, you know, not being on a scholarship, having to pay for everything out here already,” said BJ Williams, a defensive back who relocated from Florida to play at Mt. San Antonio College. “That’s a lot of money out of pocket.”

Williams said he shared a three-bedroom apartment with six other students to save on rent. His football schedule, he said, didn’t allow time for a part-time job.

Skinner argues that Williams and other less-high-profile athletes could earn sponsorships from their hometown businesses if her bill passes. If they’re lucky enough to star in a video that goes viral — like UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi did earlier this year — they could monetize that. The bill would prevent colleges or the NCAA from taking action against athletes who pursue such opportunities, or who contract with agents.

But how many of those opportunities would actually pan out?

“We’ve got the rare cases, like [former Duke basketball player] Zion Williamson, where companies would be lined up,” said Nancy Lough, a University of Nevada Las Vegas professor and former collegiate coach who studies gender and marketing in college sports.

“Beyond that, I think we’re talking small potatoes here. There may be a local car dealership where the community really resonates with the athlete and they decide to sponsor them. I don’t see that these athletes are going to get wealthy because this bill is passed.”

Probably the biggest impact if the legislation passes, said Lough, is that “NCAA committees would get busier and more intentional on deciding how they’re actually going to deal with this issue.”

They’d have time: The measure wouldn’t take effect until 2023. It is scheduled to be heard by the Assembly’s higher education committee July 9.

The hearing comes after NCAA President Mark Emmert wrote to another Assembly committee, urging it to delay the bill. The legislation “threatens to alter materially the principles of intercollegiate athletics and create local differences that would make it impossible to host fair national championships,” Emmert wrote in what some saw as a veiled threat to exclude California teams.

The committee passed SB 206 anyway, but staffers added an unusually vivid warning to the typically-dry legislative analysis that accompanies each bill. “Beyond this,” they wrote, “there be dragons.”

* Student journalist Andres Soto of CALmatters’ Cost of College project contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.