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Tim Tebow says college athletes don’t deserve compensation. Jay Bilas says that’s ‘immoral.’

Tim Tebow on ESPN's "First Take" said college athletes pursuit of income from use of their names and likeness diminishes college football. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

If Tim Tebow really thinks college athletes should not receive compensation for their on-field services, if he thinks they should play purely for love of the game and that money would ruin college sports, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas has a way for Tebow to perform a trial run for that system.

“Tim could choose to work for free at ESPN, if he wants to,” Bilas told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “That doesn’t mean I should work for free. An individual choice does not justify the policy.”

Tebow, an ESPN college football analyst and the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, argued Friday that athletes’ pursuit of compensation diminished college sports. Speaking on “First Take,” Tebow, 32, said paying student athletes would turn the NCAA “into the NFL where who has the most money, that’s where you go.”

When he played at Florida, Tebow said, he didn’t want any money for the time he devoted to football, nor did he want any cut of the profits the athletic department reaped by using his name and likeness. He said he was motivated to play college football because of his family connections to Florida and the pride he took from representing the institution.

The "Fair Pay to Play Act" lets student athletes in the state generate income before graduation through endorsements and sponsorships. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I knew going to Florida, my dream school, where I wanted to go, the passion for it, and if I could support my team, support my college, support my university, that’s what it’s all about,” Tebow said. “But now we’re changing it from us, from we, from my university, from being an alumni where I care, which makes college football and college sports special, to then, okay, it’s not about us, it’s not about we, it’s just about me. And yes, I know we live in a selfish culture where it’s all about us, but we’re just adding and piling on to that where it changes what’s special about college football.

“That’s why people are more passionate about college sports than they are the NFL. That’s why the stadiums are bigger in college than they are in the NFL, because it’s about your team. It’s about your university. It’s about where my family wanted to go. It’s about where my grandfather had a dream of seeing Florida win an SEC championship, and you’re taking that away so that young kids can earn a dollar, and that’s just not where I feel like college football needs to go.”

Tebow was weighing in on Fair Pay to Play Act, a bill that this week passed the California state legislature that would allow college athletes in that state to make money of their names and likenesses and maintain NCAA eligibility. The NCAA has called the proposal “unconstitutional,” arguing states lack the jurisdiction to grant student athletes these rights.

Bilas, a practicing attorney, doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s immoral for college athletes to be told they’re worth nothing when they’re not worth nothing. They’re worth billions,” he said. “ … This train is rolling down the tracks toward compensation and the NCAA’s response is, ‘Let’s lash the players to the tracks and tell lawmakers they’ll be hurting the student athletes.' That’s simply not true.”

The bill awaits Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) signature. The legislation, once ratified, is set to take effect in 2023 and would set up a fierce court battle between the NCAA and the state of California, home to some of college sports’ most iconic brands.

Tebow said he felt qualified to talk about the issue because of the commercial success his No. 15 jersey had while he attended Florida, where he won two BCS national championships and two Southeastern Conference titles.

“When I was at the University of Florida, my jersey was one of the top-selling jerseys around the world,” Tebow said. “It was like Kobe, LeBron and I was right behind them, and I didn’t make a dollar from it, but nor did I want to because I knew going into college what it was all about.”

That’s a valuable perspective, Bilas said he thought when he saw Tebow’s segment. Bilas likened it to professional athletes, such as Tom Brady, who choose to accept less money in their contracts so their teams have more capital to sign other great players.

But that’s a choice, and college athletes don’t have one. Instead, Bilas said, the NCAA insists individual players don’t hold any market value and therefore don’t deserve compensation.

“That’s an outright lie, and they know it,” said Bilas, a frequent NCAA critic.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Tim Tebow or the last walk-on on the roster,” he added. “Let each make the decision that’s best for them. If getting no compensation is really the best approach, let it stand on its own in the marketplace.”

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