BOZEMAN — The important and sometimes contentious issue of college athlete welfare got a shot in the arm last week when California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 206 — the Fair Pay to Play Act — into law.
In essence, the law will allow student-athletes in California to profit financially from their name, image and likeness. Many other states are already pursuing similar legislation. But it could be problematic because the NCAA, as it stands now, allows for no such benefits.
The statute isn’t set to take effect in California until 2023, but it’s started a debate about whether or not the NCAA should amend its own rules as a larger solution to the issue. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is chairing a subcommittee tasked with finding the answer.
Closer to home, the law sparks an interesting conversation. What kind of impact would something like this have on student-athletes in the Big Sky Conference — particularly at Montana and Montana State — should these benefits become permissible?
“This is an incredibly complicated issue. I can honestly say that in the 26 years I’ve been in this business, this might be one of the most complicated issues that I’ve dealt with,” Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill told 406mtsports.com.
“Philosophically I’m in favor of a student-athlete being treated like all other students. If I’m sitting next to someone that’s a world-class violinist and they can sell their records and make money, then if I’m an athlete why can’t I sell tee shirts with my name on the back, whether that’s in Montana or anywhere else? Philosophically I’m in favor of that.”
What the California law will allow, as an example, is for a student-athlete to be compensated monetarily as a kind of endorsement deal. If the star quarterback appears in a television advertisement for the local car dealership, he can make money from that.
Additionally, if the star point guard wants to sell T-shirts with his or her name or face emblazoned on it, that will be their right.
But what would be the impact in the Big Sky, a league with a giant footprint in the west that spans two time zones and eight different states?
“For us in the Big Sky Conference, we think it has such a small effect on the way we operate,” Wistrcill said. “There might be two or three or five — tops probably — student-athletes at each campus that might be able to do something.
“But it’s not life-changing money. We’re not talking about millions of dollars for any of our student-athletes. We just have to figure out some way to prevent the abuses.”
Where it can become tricky, Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said, is in recruiting.
The potential of so-called bidding wars for prospective athletes by outside influence is concerning, especially in Montana, where the Bobcats and Grizzlies are top dog.
“I don’t think the solution to this issue can be solved state by state. I think it needs to be something that is done through the regular legislative process of the NCAA,” Haslam said. “The reason why is that there’s got to be some kind of regulation on it.
You have free articles remaining.
“If there’s not, then this will enter into the recruiting process — into the inducement for recruits to attend different schools. I just think that really gets into some areas that opens doors for some unscrupulous behavior.”
Both Wistrcill and Montana State athletic director Leon Costello took similar positions regarding the consequences of state-by-state legislation.
Wistrcill said as many as 15 to 20 states are currently exploring similar laws. The Denver Post reported recently that Colorado legislators are preparing a bill that could be introduced as early as next year. A comparable law is also being probed in Florida.
That could create incredible eligibility concerns across the NCAA, Wistrcill remarked. Would the NCAA still require its member schools to abide by its bylaws or face stiff consequences?
Costello said there needs to be a uniform policy.
“The NCAA rulebook works because we’re all abiding by the same rules,” he said. “If each state has their own rule or own law as they have it, it doesn’t work, and there’s no way to regulate or manage it.”
“I think the NCAA has been progressive in the past based on student-athlete needs, and I see this as another opportunity for us to be able to support them,” Costello said. “Where it shakes out in the end, we have to wait and see.”
The initial response to the California law by the NCAA in September — before the bill had even been signed — struck a pessimistic tone, going so far as to call it “unconstitutional” in a letter from its board of governors.
Wistrcill, Costello and Haslam all said they expect the other shoe to drop in one way, shape or form, but there wasn’t a consensus on how or when.
If the NCAA does amend its rules to allow student-athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, will it infringe on its time-honored code of amateurism? Will it open the door for a full-blown pay-for-play system?
Those questions will linger.
“We’re carefully watching what’s going on. But it’s very concerning for us because we do believe in the amateur model,” Wistrcill said. “We believe that our student-athletes are provided with something that the general student isn’t provided with. They get a scholarship. They get some living allowance. They’re allowed to participate in ways that the general student isn’t.
“Do they deserve more? Well, maybe. I think this name, image and likeness thing is a great discussion for us to be having because times are changing. College athletics has always evolved, and I think it will evolve through this as well.”