Where’s Teddy Roosevelt when you need him?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is facing what sports law experts say is its worst crisis since Roosevelt was president and college football was a brutal, even deadly, game under pressure to improve safety. Roosevelt, a fan of the game, gathered the presidents of Harvard, Yale and Princeton in 1905 to hash out reforms, an effort that would drive the creation of the NCAA the following year.
Now, after California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Monday allowing college athletes to hire agents and to be paid for endorsements and the use of their images, the NCAA is again in crisis, experts said, and it’s not clear who will play Roosevelt this time to resolve the dispute over whether college athletes should be paid.
The NCAA has always insisted that college athletes are amateurs who shouldn’t profit financially from their talents.
Meanwhile, major college football and basketball coaches are paid millions of dollars a year, and big athletic departments reap millions from brand sponsorships and TV contracts. The NCAA itself reported slightly more than $1 billion in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in August 2018, the last for which full figures are available.
Newsom called that a “bankrupt deal” as he signed the legislation during an appearance Monday on the basketball superstar LeBron James’ HBO show, “The Shop.”
Current NCAA regulations ban athletes from signing endorsement deals or accepting any payment for the use of their images. The California law, which is scheduled to go into effect in 2023, would let them do so, and it would specifically prohibit the NCAA from punishing them.
Newsom said the law would “change college sports for the better by having, now, the interest, finally, of the athletes on par with the interests of the institution.”
“Look, they’re a little panicked, because they recognize they’re vulnerable. People are hitting this, not just in California, but all across the country, because the gig’s up,” Newsom said.
“Billions and billions of dollars — 14-plus billion dollars — goes to these universities, goes to these colleges, billion-plus revenue to the NCAA themselves,” he said. “And the actual product, the folks that are putting their lives on the line, putting everything on the line, are getting nothing.”
The NCAA, which had urged Newsom to veto the bill, acknowledged Monday that change was needed, but it said in a statement that reform should come only “through the NCAA’s rules-making process.”
“Unfortunately, this new law already is creating confusion for current and future student-athletes, coaches, administrators and campuses, and not just in California,” it said.
The NCAA said it was considering “next steps in California while our members move forward with ongoing efforts to make adjustments to NCAA name, image and likeness rules that are both realistic in modern society and tied to higher education.”
Tim Nevius, executive director of the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, which provides legal support to athletes in disputes with the NCAA, said that while the NCAA insists that its stance trumpets the idea of amateurism, “it’s really for the purpose of maintaining power and money.”
“I think it’s especially relevant to note that this whole enterprise is entirely professional, except the players are not paid,” said Nevius, a lawyer who worked for the NCAA investigating alleged violations before shifting to advocating for athletes.
Nevius predicted in an interview that the NCAA would fight the California legislation in court, which he said would be “foolish and unsuccessful” because “there’s mounting pressure on the NCAA to come to grips with the fact that its rules are outdated, repressive and unjust.”
Another option would be for the NCAA to simply kick the California colleges out. That, too, would be “incredibly foolish,” Nevius said.
Almost 60 California colleges compete in NCAA sports, which are divided into three tiers. The top tier, Division I, includes 23 California schools, four of which are members of the powerful Pacific-12 conference: the University of Southern California, the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University.
“That’s a lot of institutions that could be affected by this. It’s quite feasible they could go it alone,” said Nellie Drew, a sports law professor and director of the Center for the Advancement of Sport at the University at Buffalo Law School.
Nevius agreed, saying: “College sports can exist without the NCAA. California colleges can form their own association if they had to.”
‘Harmful and, we believe, unconstitutional’
The NCAA is unlikely to go down without a fight.
In a letter to state legislative leaders three weeks ago, the NCAA’s board of governors called the measure “harmful and, we believe, unconstitutional.” It said California colleges would have an unfair advantage in recruiting star athletes, an edge that it said “would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions.”
“Yes, California colleges will be able to attract better talent, because they [would] have the ability to capitalize on the enormous popularity of their athletes’ reputation and skills,” Nevius said. “That’s basic economics.
But it’s a false argument, he said, pointing to the NCAA’s long history of recruiting and under-the-table payment scandals.
“Unfair recruiting advantages — that’s the fact right now,” he said. “There is no concern in that regard.”