There are only two potential fates for an institution like the NCAA. It either reaches a point where it must use military force to impose its will on its non-consenting subjects, or it destroys itself. Given that Mark Emmert has yet to raise an army, only one question remains: When will the end arrive?
If the California state Legislature has its way, the answer to that question will come sometime before Dec. 31, 2022, which is the date that a proposed law sets as the last that any Division I athlete competing for a college in the state would be forbidden from earning money from his or her name, image, or likeness.
After passing the state senate and assembly this week, State Bill 206 -- the Fair Pay to Play Act -- requires only a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom to become law.
From that point forward, starting on Jan. 1, 2023, any college athlete in California would be free to sign endorsement deals, or charge money for autographs, or sell sponsored Instagram posts.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing, and a much bigger one than many pundits and quasi-experts are willing to concede. The potential consequences of such a move include nothing less than the complete destruction of the student-athlete model that the NCAA has used as its foundation for the last 60-plus years while riding the dual waves of population and technological explosion into its present status as a billion-dollar industry.
In fact, it is the most realistic potential consequence, unless you include the overriding federal legislation that would be the NCAA’s last, best hope at preserving something that vaguely resembles its current model.
Make no mistake: A world like the one California envisions cannot coexist with the world like the one in which the NCAA currently operates. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but most definitely a thing, particularly from the perspective of colleges whose alumni bases do not possess the net worth of the UCLAs and the USCs and the Stanfords.
The only logical conclusion of legislation like California’s is a world in which athletic talent is distributed among the nation’s colleges according to free-market principles. In other words, it is a world in which the talent behaves like a pyramid of water glasses stacked beneath a running faucet, trickling down to the next level of receptacles only after the ones on top are filled to capacity.
In this case, the cups at the top are the institutions with the richest alumni bases. Again, that is not necessarily a bad thing. But, still, it is a thing.
When many people envision the effect of this legislation, they see Zion Williamson or Deandre Ayton suddenly being able to sign a shoe deal. But the real impact is likely to come on the rest of the roster, which will inevitably be filled by athletes paid to be there in the form of “endorsement" deals funded by the well-heeled donors among a school’s fan base.
For the sake of illustration, imagine a university that counts among its athletic boosters the CEO of a multibillion-dollar athletic apparel company. Imagine that said company already spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year paying athletes to wear its shoes and appear in its commercials.
Now, imagine that the university is not in Oregon but in California, and imagine that California’s Fair Pay to Play Act becomes the law of the land, thereby enabling the aforementioned CEO to pay any amount he wants to a high school athlete for his “likeness,” provided said athlete agrees to bring said likeness to said university.
Again, though, this isn’t about Nike. This is about the owner of a car dealership at School X who is offering a five-star recruit a $50,000 annual retainer as a spokesperson, and the owner of a chain of fast-food franchises at School Y who knows his coach covets that same five-star recruit.
We’re talking about the transformation of college sports into a real-life video game for millionaire and billionaire sports fans. At the state level, this would have the same impact as Citizens United on the political process. In fact, the political action committee model is the most logical outcome in a world with these sorts of ground rules. Instead of candidates for office, we’ll have roster-spot endowments.
It’s a fascinating world to consider, and it’s hard to see how the prospect doesn’t end with a critical mass of people arriving at the realization that colleges cannot continue to operate with a straight face in this billion-dollar world that they have created for themselves.
“It’s really amazing because nobody has thought about taking the time to think about where this goes,” said one West Coast sports industry lawyer who has followed the California legislation.
Newsom’s signature is no certainty. That should be clear to anybody familiar with the way money and power shape our political process. A devil will fight awfully hard to avoid being cast out.
But the NCAA has spent the better part of a century kicking a Pandora’s box down the road while pretending it isn’t open. Arms races don’t resolve themselves easily. If the people of California get their way, that’s exactly what is about to begin.