Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) is majority whip of the California state Senate. Her district is home to the Cal Bears, Golden State Warriors, Oakland A’s and Oakland Raiders.
This article has been updated.
Moments after Zion Williamson crumpled to the basketball hardwood last week, clutching his leg in pain, the sports world quickly wondered whether the Duke University star’s career was over. Luckily, Williamson’s injury in the high-profile game against archrival North Carolina appears not to have been serious. But the incident quickly prompted yet another round of sharp criticisms of long-standing rules that bar collegiate athletes from receiving fair compensation for their work, while colleges and universities — and the NCAA — reap billions from TV contracts and corporate sponsorship deals.
Donovan Mitchell of the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz tweeted, “Again let’s remember all the money that went into this game.... and these players get none of it.... and now Zion gets hurt... something has to change @NCAA.”
Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins told reporters, “I loved my experience in college. … But with that being said, just how crooked the whole NCAA business is — I actually saw a post the other day where I think the highest ticket for that UNC-Duke game was $2,500, $3,500. How much does Zion Williamson see? That’s who they’re coming to see, so how much of that is he getting?”
The answer to Cousins’s rhetorical question, of course, is little to none. Yes, Williamson and other college athletes receive scholarships and small financial stipends. But that amounts to far less than what they are worth. According to a 2012 study by the National College Players Association (NCPA) and the Drexel University Sports Management Program, the annual fair market value for the average NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision football player at the time was $137,357; for the average big-time men’s basketball player, it was $289,031.
The truth is, the NCAA operates a deeply unfair system. That’s why I have introduced Senate Bill 206, also known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, in the California State Legislature. Under SB 206, college athletes in California would finally be able to receive compensation for their work via corporate sponsorship deals — much like Olympic athletes are allowed to do.
Under my bill, if Williamson played at UCLA, the University of Southern California or another major California school, he would be allowed to sign a basketball shoe contract with Nike or Under Armour that likely would be quite lucrative. (A Forbes contributor recently estimated that a shoe deal for Williamson could be worth up to $10.5 million a year.) And so if he were to suffer a career-ending injury in college, he would not be left empty-handed.
Unfortunately, injuries are all too common in collegiate sports, and athletes tend to be more susceptible to injury later in life. According to a 2014 Indiana University study, 67 percent of middle-aged former NCAA Division I athletes suffered major injuries and 50 percent reported chronic injuries — nearly double the rate of non-athletes. “The Williamson case highlights just how unfair the system is. Players are forced into a system in which they play for essentially no compensation, but they risk injury that could seriously impact their future,” Ramogi Huma, executive director of the NCPA, recently told me.
It’s not just about top-tier men’s sports. Look what happened to Missy Franklin, one of the great female swimmers of all time. After winning four gold medals at the 2012 Olympic Games, Franklin chose to attend my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, rather than turn pro and sign sponsorship deals with Speedo or Tyr. But while at Cal, Franklin suffered back problems. She finally turned pro in 2015, giving up her NCAA eligibility, but she never regained her top form and is now retired after debilitating shoulder injuries — deprived of the full compensation she should have received.
And look at Katie Ledecky, perhaps the finest female swimmer in history. She recently surrendered her eligibility at Stanford University after turning professional and signing sponsorship deals. The NCAA, in other words, gave up its chance to feature the world’s greatest female swimmer in this year’s championships just so it could cling to an outdated concept of amateurism.
Noted sports economist Andy Schwarz, who along with Huma helped craft SB 206, also pointed out to me recently that the legislation could be a boon to women’s sports overall. How? Under SB 206, universities could sign richer sponsorship deals for men’s basketball and football, because they would be allowed to feature individual athletes. And those bigger deals, in turn, would likely trigger Title IX rules that require funding be shared with women’s college sports programs.
Finally, the Fair Pay to Play Act would not require a dime from California schools or taxpayers, but it would help relieve the substantial pressures on California star athletes to turn pro early, and instead allow them to stay in school and earn their degrees. After all, isn’t that what college sports are supposed to be all about?