Editor’s Note: Daron K. Roberts is the founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
California’s Fair Pay to Play Act represents a seismic shift in the landscape of college athletics. And the group who has the most to gain from its passage? Female athletes.
The law, signed September 30 by Governor Gavin Newsom, frees college athletes to get compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. And to counter the paternalistic argument that naive college students will get taken advantage of, the law enables athletes to retain legal counsel or agents to advise on such matters without losing their eligibility.
Consider one example: Katelyn Ohashi. Ohashi, a former UCLA gymnast, performed a gravity-defying routine in January that not only garnered a perfect 10, but also catapulted her through the social media stratosphere. The number of views for her routine, a video hosted on the UCLA Athletics YouTube page, has attracted more than 65 million views.
For Ohashi, this moment could be the zenith of her athletic career. If she wanted to return to her hometown of Seattle and host the Ohashi Gymnastics Camp or sign a sponsorship deal with a local car dealership, she would have immediately lost her scholarship. Under the Fair Pay to Play Act, Ohashi could capitalize on that narrow window of opportunity to secure compensation. The money generated from the Manning Passing Academy may represent a blip on the balance sheet of the former All-Pro quarterback, but for a collegiate athlete, the extra funds could be a game changer.
The issue of allowing players to monetize their name, image and likeness summons the usual refrains. Detractors will exclaim that paying players turns amateur sports professional and taints the purity of the game. Moreover, it is highly likely that the NCAA will not only mount legal challenges to the law, but may also bar California colleges and universities from participating in NCAA competitions.
What seems to be the central issue is a blurry distinction between what constitutes “amateur” and “professional” sports. When one looks at the balance sheets of plush athletics departments and salary totals for elite coaches, the only feature distinguishing college athletics from pro sports is a cheap labor force.
Aside from the multimillion-dollar contracts of head football and men’s basketball coaches, one stat should raise the eyebrows of anyone’s conscience. The NCAA, a nonprofit, will receive an average of $1 billion per year for the TV rights to broadcast March Madness. Currently, that deal runs through 2032.
The NCAA boasts that most of the revenue gets reinvested into member colleges and universities. This means that payments are dispersed to athletic departments and presumably spent on student-athletes. While it is hard to track how the funds are actually spent, what we do know is that they do not reach athletes in the form of compensation for their efforts.
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The Fair Pay to Play Act does not mandate that players be paid. It merely allows them the option to get compensated. Female athletes, who lack viable professional playing options, stand to benefit the most.
According to the NCAA, of the 3,692 draft eligible female basketball players, 32 were drafted in 2018. That’s less than 1%. And as advocates such as soccer star Megan Rapinoe have highlighted, the pay disparity between professional male and female athletes is wide and deep. The maximum salary for a WNBA player is $117,500 whereas the minimum salary for an NBA player is $580,000.
Will female athletes secure the same profits that head coaches or even male athletes command? Absolutely not. The two biggest drivers of revenue for athletic departments are football and men’s basketball. Donations, ticket sales, and sponsorships flow unevenly to these two sports.
And for the few female athletes who go pro in their respective sports, they still experience pay inequities in comparison to their male counterparts. This legislation offers women a rare opportunity to capitalize on their athletic achievements while in college.
The bill’s co-sponsor, state Senator Nancy Skinner, put it best: “College is the primary time when the spotlight is on. For women, this might be the only time they could make any money.”