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My Column: California Legislation Could Turn College Athletics On Their Head

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Taking a look at the recent California legislation regarding player compensation.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert-Press Conference Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Few topics generate more discussion in college athletics than the debate over whether student athletes should receive compensation. There are a wide variety of proposals about how that concept could work, but the central debate is usually the same. Many believe NCAA and college officials have taken advantage of young athletes and the system should be turned on its head.

Well, that might be on the verge of happening.

The California state legislature is currently considering legislation that “would allow college athletes in the state to earn compensation for the use of their own name, image or likeness, beginning in 2023.” Of course, this provision would run contrary to the central principle of the NCAA, which prides itself on amateurism and limiting compensation of athletes to tuition scholarships and associated expenses.

The NCAA, unsurprisingly, has taken issue with the move. Mark Emmert has apparently written letters to two chairs of the State Assembly advocating for the rejection of this legislation. He even went so far as to threaten the eligibility of Californian teams if this legislation passes:

“We recognize all of the efforts that have been undertaken to develop this bill in the context of complex issues related to the current collegiate model that have been the subject of litigation and much national debate,” Emmert wrote in his letter to the committee chairs. “Nonetheless, when contrasted with current NCAA rules, as drafted the bill threatens to alter materially the principles of intercollegiate athletics and create local differences that would make it impossible to host fair national championships. As a result, it likely would have a negative impact on the exact student-athletes it intends to assist.”

So, what should fans make of this?

It seems like the NCAA has been a constant target of public outcry and litigation for much of the last decade on this issue, but little has changed. Is this the event that’s actually going to change things?

Let’s dive into this.

-Let’s not put the cart before the horse.

Before we get into the potential ramifications of this legislation, it’s important to reiterate that this proposal is not yet law. Moreover, even if passed as written, it wouldn’t go into effect until 2023. That’s four more collegiate seasons of play before this even becomes a factor. Signs are encouraging for its passage, but I don’t pretend to be a California legislative expert. Let’s not overreact while we still wait for this California legislature to move.

It’s also important to note that there could be legal challenges, even if this does become law. Will all the colleges go along without protest, or will they try and fight it? It’s hard to assess what those challenges might look like now, but Power Five programs like California and UCLA could lose out on quite a bit of athletic revenue if the NCAA punishes California teams. I wouldn’t expect athletic directors and coaches to simply take that in stride.

-Will the NCAA actually back up its threats?

But assuming this does pass in California and become law, the top question has to be about how the NCAA would react. As mentioned above, the NCAA has already threatened penalties for schools that participate in this proposed practice.

There are a lot of varying opinions out there with regard to the NCAA and its strength. Some perceive it as an overwhelmingly powerful organization clinging to an unfair model while others believe the NCAA has lost all its authority over its member schools. There really isn’t a correct answer. A lot just depends on your perspective.

In this case, it’s hard to tell whether the NCAA would actually be willing to ban marquee programs like California and UCLA from regular season and/or postseason play if they participated in compensating student athletes. Imagine a Chip Kelly led Bruins squad being excluded from the College Football Playoff after running the table or a potential top 10 ranked basketball team from one of the nation’s most prestigious programs being excluded from the NCAA Tournament.

If the NCAA is tired of fan outrage and litigation, those scenarios probably wouldn’t help things.

Whether fans admit it or not, we don’t really have an answer to this question yet. The NCAA has backed down in some major situations before, but would they back down from a fight that could potentially unravel their entire model? Who knows.

-Don’t expect other states to sit idly by.

The Pac 12’s recent struggles have been addressed in depth by a variety of publications over the last few years. The conference has failed to make the College Football Player on repeated occasions and seems to be doing even worse in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, it took a few late surprises for the league to even get a handful of teams in last March.

With that said, if California schools were the sole schools allowed to compensate their student athletes, it’s pretty reasonable to anticipate a massive benefit for those schools on the recruiting trail. For instance, imagine getting an offer from UCLA with an additional $20 thousand a year in compensation compared against a Big Ten offer. It’s going to take quite a lot to turn down a yearly check from the California school.

And there’s no debating that other leagues are not going to be ok with such a scenario. If you think the Big Ten and SEC are going to sit back and watch California schools run recruiting circles around them, you’ve got another thing coming. If this legislation actually passes and the California schools don’t suffer massive sanctions are a result, my guess is every state with a nationally relevant program would adopt similar legislation by 2023.

I generally try to avoid slippery slope style arguments, but it’s hard to see this playing out any differently if the California schools are allowed to take these actions. And if that’s the case, the NCAA will have no choice but to alter its rules. What that new world would look like is hard to imagine right now, but the NCAA exists because of its member schools. It’s not going to be able to simply exclude them all.

-The transfer implications could be otherworldly.

Another aspect of this I haven’t seen discussed is what could happen with transfers. To start, imagine the number of players who would suddenly want to play in California, where they could get paid thousands of dollars extra to do the same thing as they would elsewhere. Things would settle down over time, but would we see massive amounts of marquee players suddenly want to transfer to California for the 2023 season? It doesn’t seem far fetched.

On a similar note, what would happen with the eligibility of players that were paid while on a California roster, but transferred elsewhere? Would they receive additional punishment, or would they maintain normal eligibility? It seems like a huge bag of worms.

-Could we see a rival NCAA organization rise up?

One aspect of the “pay the players” debate that I think many people don’t realize is that the NCAA doesn’t actually need to exist. It’s a voluntary organization and isn’t part of any state or federal government. Schools aren’t mandated to be involved with it. It simply has a monopoly because everyone has decided to participate. If you don’t believe me, go research the roots of the Big Ten. You might be shocked to learn that the Big Ten is actually older than the NCAA.

Simply put, the NCAA needs colleges, but they don’t need the NCAA.

If this legislation passes and the NCAA does decide to render substantial punishments to the California schools, one has to wonder whether the California schools and/or the Pac 12 will consider forming their own version of the NCAA, which allows for player compensation. This might seem crazy, but all major change has to start somewhere.

This success of this would clearly depend on the Super NCAA (my proposed name for this NCAA copycat) recruiting the rest of the Pac 12 and other marquee schools to join. Honestly, it might not seem likely right now, but I could see plenty of nationally relevant programs seeing an incentive to join.

Imagine a world where programs like Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State could simply unload their money cannons in recruiting. It might not seem fair, but the money would certainly be there if some of those blue bloods moved. And if they moved, many others would follow suit.

The Super NCAA would be a pretty radical outcome of this California legislation, but I don’t see it as being that unreasonable, should the circumstances above develop. As mentioned above, there’s no denying that California schools are not going to just be ok with being banned from postseason play.

Overall

Maybe I’m reading too much into this California legislation, but this really feels like a massive development for college athletics. While the NCAA has taken some steps toward investigating paying its players, this could speed up that process substantially. Putting a huge red mark on 2023 would force the NCAA to do something in the next few years. They’re not going to be able to have their heads in the sand when one state’s athletes are getting paid.

Who knows how this will all turn out, but don’t expect this to be the final chapter in this story. And sooner rather than later, college athletics might look entirely different.