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Opinion

Opinion: The Pac-12 should defy the NCAA and embrace California’s law letting student-athletes earn dollars

UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi gets a perfect score on the floor exercise at a March collegiate meet.
Starting in January, UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi earned global attention and perfect scores at multiple meets in 2019, including at this competition against Utah State in March at Pauley Pavilion.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times )

The Pac-12 Conference, and the NCAA, want you to think the sky is falling, that California’s new Fair Pay to Play Act, which lets athletes profit from their talents starting in 2023, will ruin college sports. The conference, which includes four California universities as members, issued a statement when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law on Sept. 30: “It will have very negative consequences for our student-athletes and broader universities in California.”

The Pac-12 is missing out on a great opportunity. It should leap at the chance to do right by its athletes. It would earn a much-needed brand boost and gain a recruiting edge in the process. And it would take the lead in shaping what’s inevitable: a move away from a false ideal of amateurism.

The new law allows athletes the right to hire an agent, and make money from their “name, image and likeness,” as professionals do. Denying that right is disingenuous at best in the 21st century. “Amateurism” today is simply a label slapped on a system in which players in revenue-generating college sports work 50 to 60 hours a week in exchange for an education they are rarely allowed time to pursue. The notion that making money would harm this balance is ludicrous. Other scholarship students get paid if they work and scholarship musicians play paid gigs on weekends; no one believes simply getting a paycheck compromises learning.

The truth is, athletes in big-time college sports are the work force in a $14-billion-a-year enterprise. Universities at the top of the heap took in more than $200 million in 2017-18; 62 head football coaches were paid $2 million or more. Athletic department staffs are ballooning along with coaches’ bonus structures, while athlete compensation has increased only very slightly, with cost-of-attendance stipends. Even when sports program revenue is plowed back into athletic departments (Louisiana State just spent $28 million on a new locker room), such figures make it hard to accept the argument that athletes should be happy to play for a scholarship alone.

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Time and time again, coaches and athletes are caught breaking the NCAA’s no-pay rules, which is itself a sign that the market for talent is being artificially restricted. A 2017 FBI probe into men’s basketball exposed how the value of top athletes incentivized under-the-table cash for players and their families. Allowing athletes to make endorsement money would bring this black market into the open, and it would stop criminalizing players, most of whom are young black men, for capitalizing on their own talents and worth.

Here’s another disingenuous NCAA claim: Allowing star athletes to get a personal share of the pie will somehow hurt non-revenue-producing sports, especially women’s sports. As state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) told The Times, it was collegiate female athletes in sports like rowing and gymnastics that called her to thank her for sponsoring the new law. College may be the only time some of them will be able to capitalize on their prowess. Consider how UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi, a standout gymnast at the collegiate but not the world level, might have cashed in after her perfect floor routine at a January meet went viral.

Pac-12 Olympic athletes have already shown that individual rewards don’t ruin college sports, or athletes’ desire for learning. Swimmer Katie Ledecky earned $355,000 in Olympic medal bonuses at the Rio Games and entered Stanford University to continue her studies and begin her collegiate athletic eligibility, earning eight national championships to help the Cardinal (and the Pac-12) win two NCAA team titles in 2017 and 2018. Ledecky gave up her last two years of eligibility to turn pro and is on pace to complete her degree in 2020 while training for the Tokyo Games.

The college athletic establishment claims that the California law will mean less money for the schools because booster donations will decline and endorsements that used to go to them will instead go to individuals. That’s an unproven zero-sum argument. If Ohashi and Ledecky could have taken advantage of the California law, their schools’ prospects for revenue could have risen along with their own. And just to be clear: The law doesn’t require schools to share their sports dollars with athletes; the athletes earn what they can, if they can, from outside sources or deals with university sponsors, like their coaches can.

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The schools that make up the Pac-12 are home to some of the smartest people on the planet. Their legal scholars should help fight whatever court challenges the NCAA mounts against the law and help guide students to make deals within the rules (sponsorship contracts can’t conflict with their school contracts). Pac-12 business scholars should step up to give athletes and the schools advice on maximizing everyone’s earnings. The humanists and social scientists at these universities should help create an intercollegiate athletics ethos that isn’t tied to an out-of-date notion of amateurism.

The advantages for the Pac-12 ought to be obvious. High school prospects who could be the next LeBron James or Richard Sherman are watching. They will want to attend a school that supports their right to earn money. And fighting for student rights is a public relations win on other fronts as well.

Besides, other conferences will follow. Pennsylvania, Florida and South Carolina are among at least 10 states trying to rush their own athlete pay legislation to passage; they don’t want to see their schools’ powerhouse programs lose a competitive advantage.

College sports will survive the Fair Pay to Play Act despite the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pac-12 and the NCAA. It will survive just as it did despite the NCAA’s dire predictions when the Supreme Court busted its TV monopoly in 1984 and when assistant basketball coaches won their antitrust lawsuit and had their salary cap lifted in the mid-1990s.

It requires a leap of faith to say no to the NCAA, but on balance, it’s even riskier to stand still. The Pac-12, the self-described “conference of champions,” is the perfect group of schools to do this right.

Victoria Jackson is a clinical assistant professor of history, specializing in sport, at Arizona State University, and a former NCAA national champion and professional runner.


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