The words amateur sports are time travelers. They come from a time long ago, when Americans had a more halcyon ideal of sports that perhaps wasn’t colored by, well, all this color on their courts and fields. The mindset it reinforces seeks to maintain a false purity, decelerating progress as it limits the very free market that the NCAA and the rest of the college sports industry so readily exploits to the tune of $14 billion last year, all made off the sweat of the young, unpaid talent who was put on display.
“But they get scholarships!” cry the defenders. As the discussions rage on about paying all or some of those players a wage or allowing them to capitalize on their celebrity in the free market, we hear that tired line coming out of the mouths of NCAA defenders left and right, people seeking to characterize the status quo of collegiate athletics as little more than a fair trade: an undergraduate education for a chance to wear the colors of your school on the field of play.
California Governor Gavin Newsom — who became the NCAA’s new number-one villain when he signed a new law on Monday that allows California college athletes to profit off of their likenesses and renown, allowing them to hire agents and secure endorsements — readily volunteers that the same NCAA helped him get to where he is today. Thanks to his “pretty severe learning disability,” Newsom was one of those young folks who were given a chance to attend a four-year college because he received an athletic scholarship — a partial one to Santa Clara University for baseball. “I would never have gotten into college had it not been for athletics,” Newsom said during an October 1st interview on The Athletic podcast The Lead, adding that he would not be governor without sports. “But I recall, very specifically, baseball, that the minute I got there, it was a full-time occupation.”
Newsom went on to note, accurately, that the term “student-athlete” is more of a legal defense than it is an accurate depiction of priorities, either for the NCAA or the institutions for whom it generates profits. That was certainly the case in 2015, when the Northwestern football team tried and failed to start a player union, rejected when the National Labor Relations Board embraced the NCAA’s fiction: that the players are primarily students, despite all of the time that sports steals away from their studies.
Recognizing the NCAA continues to fail the athletes with regards to their education even as it limits their free-market opportunities like no one else on campus, Newsom has struck back at the very system for which he himself is a poster boy.
It is significant that the law doesn’t go into effect until 2023. Newsom intends S.B. 206, known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, to be a pressure point for the NCAA for those four years. It gives other states time to come up with their own competing measures. New York state senator Kevin Parker is proposing a bill modeled after the California law, one that would reportedly give collegiate athletes the ability to sell the rights to their own names, images and likenesses while also requiring the institutions for which they play to pay all athletes 15% of the annual athletic department revenue. Florida state representative Kionne McGhee’s H.B. 251 was filed shortly after Newsom took action on Monday, and her bill would go into effect three years earlier than California’s.
Arguably the most popular player in modern Florida history actually spoke up against the California law. Weeks before Newsom signed it, ESPN college football analyst Tim Tebow, the former national champion quarterback of the Florida Gators, lambasted the whole idea. “If I could support my team, support my college, support my university, that’s what it’s all about,” he said, sounding like he’d traveled through time with those words amateur sports. “But now we’re changing it from ‘us,’ from being an alumni where I care, which makes college sports special, to then okay it’s not about ‘us,’ it’s not about ‘we.’ It’s just about ‘me.’”
Head coaches of collegiate sports teams, predominantly white men, are often some of the most highly paid people in the entire state, let alone his or her university or college. Yet Tebow conveniently omitted them from censure during his seven minutes of sanctimony. Tebow, who was an inescapable national celebrity during his college days, would’ve been able to make the most of any athlete in recent memory from endorsements had he been allowed. The notion that he wouldn’t have taken advantage out of some kind of antiquated notion of team solidarity is quaint.
Other alarmists have claimed that this California law is akin to a death sentence for the NCAA. That is hyperbole. The Fair Pay to Play Act is, if nothing else, a catalyst for evolution like none other in the history of modern sports. Newsom has stated outright that the NCAA “can’t afford to lose the state of California”; surely some kind of drastic consequences would follow if top players would see that they could make money through endorsements by going to, say, USC or UCLA and not the University of Michigan, or Texas. Rather than killing the NCAA as an entity outright, it is giving the institution enough time to realize that it needs to do the right thing by the very people who bring in its profits. Or else, yes, it will die.
(Frankly, we need something like it to jar loose the carcass of the Republican Party and prod it to become something new.)
While Tebow’s comments don’t necessarily reflect any specific racism in his own heart, his attitude reflects a common criticism that particularly comes from white fans, especially as the stars of the college games have grown blacker: that they don’t deserve to profit from the fruits of their own labor, that this is about some kind of antiquated set of rules that allows a lot of white people — on sidelines and in boardrooms — to become very wealthy profiting from black sweat. And here, they have gotten away with it because they have the perfect excuse. “They’re compensated,” they say — with an education that is often substandard and that doesn’t prepare them for falling short of the only career goal that many of them have: making the pros in whatever sport they came to campus to play.
I was never athletic enough as a teenager to be recruited for a collegiate scholarship, so I have no first-hand experience with a coach sitting down with me and my parents in our living room and telling us how he was going to help me achieve my dream of reaching the NFL. (I pick football as I remain realistic, even in my hypotheticals, about both my jump shot and batting average.) But the NCAA itself estimates that fewer than two percent of high school seniors who sit in those living rooms go on to play college football wind up in the NFL. The percentage is about the same for the NBA. I suspect, though, that such empty promises are made to many young men who wind up with a subpar education and no shot to go pro at the end of four years or more at the institution, should they even make it that far.
Profitability isn’t always about going pro. The NCAA is going to have to figure out, over these next four years, how to help people like UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi, whose perfect-10 routine captivated the nation when it went viral in January. She didn’t want to become a professional gymnast; instead, she just wanted to publish a book of poetry. The NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, wouldn’t let her do so. Presumably, they saw that as Ohashi cashing in on her YouTube-driven popularity. (Once her eligibility was up, she did pose in ESPN’s Body Issue.)
Ohashi’s case underscores the broader unfairness of the NCAA’s profiteering. Laugh about the career possibilities of poets all you like, but if undergraduate education is ostensibly both about developing your mind and figuring out what you want to do with your life, then the NCAA is doing the very opposite of its stated mission of “encourag[ing] student-athletes to enrich the experience of being a student-athlete by applying what is learned in athletics to their course of study and ultimately, to their career development.” Unless it makes money, I guess.
Both Newsom and Ohashi were two of the guests of LeBron James, the Lakers superstar, on the set of his HBO show The Shop as Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act into law on camera. There was certainly a cultural significance to the appearance — by appearing with arguably the best basketball player of his era, along with trailblazing star advocates for player rights like Ed O’Bannon and Diana Taurasi, was a giant middle finger to Emmert and the NCAA. They have been on the front lines of the fight, and it was good to see them savor the moment.
The fight over paying players is not some theoretical exercise about team spirit and fair play. That rhetoric cloaks the very real and raw labor dispute that lies beneath. For years now, advocates of the players’ cause have understood this even as the NCAA has tried to obfuscate the matter with talk of amateurism. All that the NCAA has done by pretending that they have a virtuous product is to invite the vultures in to prey on their athletes with offers that corrupt them, and then the young people are the only ones who pay the price.
What the NCAA has been doing is antithetical to the education and the development of young people. Encouraging them to be paid what they’re worth is about the best lesson you can teach. But I can understand why a wealthy and largely white cabal like the NCAA would be threatened by an insurgent labor force of color, strong and smart young people with newly realized economic power. It has been said of both college and sports that they are microcosms of American life, and what better lessons for these young black people, in particular, to learn than how to be exploited at the hands of wealthy, white folks — all while being told that they are being selfish for wanting to realize their worth. When the uniform comes off, where is this “we”?