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Let college athletes get paid for their images

Federal, not state-by-state law, is the best way to reform college athletics.

LeBron James, seen here watching his son Bronny play with Sierra Canyon High School in Ohio last month, was a vocal supporter of California's 'Fair Pay to Play Act,' which will allow college athletes to make money from name and likeness when the law goes into effect in 2023.Joe Robbins/Getty

It was a game-changer when Governor Gavin Newsom of California signed legislation in September allowing college athletes in that state to get paid for use of their name, image, or likeness, including endorsement deals and autograph-signings. The Fair Pay to Play Act, which goes into effect in 2023, made the Golden State the first in the nation to allow student athletes to profit directly from an industry that takes in $14 billion in total annual revenue.

Since the California law was signed, more than 20 statesincluding Massachusetts — have filed similar bills. Lawmakers realized they had to act quickly, or higher-education institutions in their states (like Holy Cross and Boston University in Massachusetts) would be at a competitive disadvantage relative to California’s Division I schools when recruiting student athletes. But leaving this to the states is likely to bring pointless complexity to sports recruiting and contribute to a policy arms race among states to attract top high school athletic talent. Uniform federal legislation, enacted by Congress, is needed to level the playing field.


“Having 50 different state laws for compensating student athletes on their name, image, likeness would result in chaos and endless litigation,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who played college football briefly, said in a statement. He is part of a bipartisan working group of US senators formed last month to explore federal legislation on college-athlete compensation.

Senators Chris Murphy, Mitt Romney, David Perdue, and Cory Booker are joining Rubio to convene key stakeholders — including athletes, university officials, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which regulates intercollegiate athletics.

Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) met last month with NCAA President Mark Emmert to discuss the issue of compensation for collegiate athletes.Drew Angerer/Getty

Last year, Murphy released three reports detailing the many ways in which student athletes are left behind by the multibillion-dollar industry. “Unfortunately, college athletics [have] become professionalized. And increasingly, adults in the system are making millions and millions of dollars, and leaving behind athletes who remain poor, and whose bodies are broken in the process,” Murphy said when releasing the final report last month.


Although it’s the coaches who get paid handsomely, many argue that the student players are the primary product that drives high revenues. The NCAA, a billion-dollar enterprise itself, had staunchly opposed paying them in any way, based on the need to preserve college amateurism, and thus has allowed college athletes to receive compensation only related to education, such as scholarships. But, as Murphy’s reports note, the policy became harder and harder to defend in the face of recent eye-popping sponsorship deals that the NCAA does allow colleges to sign. In 2016, UCLA signed a record-breaking 15-year deal with Under Armour for $280 million.

The NCAA, after decrying California’s law, saying it “would remove that essential element of fairness and equal treatment that forms the bedrock of college sports,” is showing signs of caving under the pressure of other states’ legislators and Congress. The NCAA has since indicated it would be open to changing its rules around student compensation and now favors a federal approach. And so does at least one of the eight Division I colleges and universities in Massachusetts. Northeastern University’s director of athletics recently told WGBH News that any legislation allowing college athletes to profit off their name should be uniform across states.


A good place to start is the Student-Athlete Equity Act, introduced last March by US Representative Mark Walker, a Democrat from North Carolina. Similar to California’s law, it would remove the current restriction on student athletes to benefit financially from third-party use of their name, image, or likeness. To be clear, this is narrow legislation that only allows student athletes to have reasonable control over how other entities profit from their identities and talent and does not require colleges to pay them directly. Booker, a former Stanford football player, has made a broader plan to bring equity into college athletics as part of his presidential platform, including measures to improve educational outcomes. Black student athletes are disproportionately represented in college basketball and football — the most revenue-generating college sports — and yet their graduation rates are consistently lower than their peers’.

Other reforms — allowing student athletes to unionize and get paid directly for their labor — are more controversial. Some believe that they would make college athletics indistinguishable from professional sports. Amateurism, they argue, preserves competitive balance, because poorer universities can compete with richer ones when recruiting talent. (At least two recent studies have debunked this claim.)

It is worth asking whether the notion of being an amateur athlete in a multibillion-dollar industry that leaves some of its stars crippled and penniless is an anachronism. For now, it’s time for the lucrative college sports industry to at least share some of the spoils of sponsorships and endorsement deals with its volunteer players.