California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) recently signed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which starting in 2023 will let California’s college athletes make money from their athletic efforts — more specifically, from endorsements or any use of their names, images and likenesses to sell products or services. That’s controversial because it defies college sports’ governing body, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), which has long banned compensation for college athletes. Passed overwhelmingly by both legislative chambers, the new law bars universities from punishing athletes for profiting from what the universities and the NCAA used to sell. And it bars the NCAA from punishing California’s universities for failing to comply with its no-compensation rules.

California lawmakers explicitly discussed the fact that the coaches and administrators who make money off college athletics tend to be white — while most college athletes playing college football and men’s basketball, the most profitable sports, are African American.

Newsom signed the bill on LeBron James’s HBO show “The Shop,” saying that this was “the beginning of a national movement.” In the wake of California’s success, many states are considering such bills, including Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. And some members of the U.S. Congress are trying to pass similar federal legislation.

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What does the public think about these laws?

California’s approach — allowing college athletes to profit from endorsements — is more popular than paying them a salary to play. In the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), we found that 58 percent supported college athletes sharing profits earned from the use of their names and images, while less than a third thought college athletes should be paid on top of their scholarships.

Nevertheless, American opinion on this divides strongly along racial lines. A whopping 70 percent of African Americans approve of the California approach, while only 56 percent of whites say they do. Why?

In our previous research on “pay for play,” we found that racial attitudes strongly influence these opinions. When African Americans are subtly encouraged to think about white college athletes, their support for “pay to play” plummets. Meanwhile, when we subtly encourage whites with “racially resentful” attitudes to think about African American college athletes, they strongly oppose cash compensation. We wanted to know whether the same dynamic influences the racial gap in opinions toward the California approach.

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How we did our research

Building on our previous research, we investigated whether thinking of white or black college athletes influences white Americans’ opinions on this kind of compensation.

In the 2018 CCES, we asked respondents, “What percentage of college athletes in the United States are African American?” We expected that in general white respondents would overestimate the percentage of African Americans in college athletics. We also expected that racial attitudes about African Americans would explain opposition to laws like California’s among white Americans who believe most NCAA athletes are black.

To measure racial attitudes, we used three contentious but common measures: “racial resentment,” “white privilege” belief, and belief in structural racism.

As you can see in the figure below, on average, white Americans do overestimate the proportion of college athletes that are black relative to the actual racial demographics of Division I athletes reported by the NCAA.

Are white respondents’ racial attitudes related to their opinions on allowing college athletes to be paid for endorsements?

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In short: yes. No matter how we measure white racial attitudes, once we control for an array of demographic, political and sports-related interest variables, our results are the same. You can see that in the figure below.

When white Americans believe African Americans make up a small percentage of NCAA athletes, their racial attitudes don’t matter: They are equally likely to support allowing college athletes to profit from the use of their names and faces.

But as their estimate of the percentage of African American athletes increases, opinions diverge by racial attitudes. The racially resentful become less willing to support such policies, while those who aren’t racially resentful become more supportive.

If we extrapolate from these trends to the extreme end of the spectrum (where 100 percent of NCAA athletes are believed to be African American), support for allowing college athletes to profit from endorsements is predicted to be twice as strong among the least racially resentful as it is among the most racially resentful. And that’s true no matter which measure we used for racial attitudes toward African Americans.

In other words, as we’ve learned before, white racial attitudes can profoundly influence how they think about NCAA policy — especially among whites who overestimate the share of black athletes.

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What does this mean for public policy?

Whether white Americans support NCAA reforms that enable athletes to profit from their efforts will depend on how the debate is framed. Emphasizing African American athletes and racial justice will have mixed results. That approach would likely boost support among African Americans and racially liberal whites, while reducing support among whites who hold racially conservative viewpoints.

Kevin Wallsten is professor in the department of political science at California State University at Long Beach.

Lauren A. McCarthy is associate professor in the department of political science and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Tatishe M. Nteta is associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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