LOS ANGELES — LeBron James jumped straight from high school to the NBA in 2003, but the Los Angeles Lakers star has given considerable thought to what his life would have been like if he had been forced to spend a year in college before he could turn pro.
While the four-time MVP would have been thrilled to play for his beloved Ohio State University, he would have had a hard time stomaching long-standing NCAA rules that prohibit athletes from making money on their names, images and likenesses.
“That No. 23 jersey would have gotten sold all over the place without my name on the back, but everybody would have known the likeness,” James told reporters at Lakers practice Monday as he imagined a pit stop in Columbus. “My body would have been on the 2004 NCAA basketball video game. And the Schottenstein Center would have been sold out every single night if I was there. Me and my mom, we didn’t have anything. We wouldn’t have been able to benefit at all from it. The university would have been able to capitalize on everything.”
Critics have decried the NCAA’s treatment of athletes as exploitative for decades. Now, James is putting his name, influence and “Uninterrupted” media platform behind legal efforts aimed at empowering college athletes to profit from their images and likenesses.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill Monday that will permit college athletes in his state to receive financial compensation through endorsement deals and sponsorships, among other opportunities. The first-of-its-kind Fair Pay to Play Act, which had already passed the California legislature and is set to go into effect in 2023, would also allow student-athletes to hire agents without compromising their scholarships. The law does not mandate that players receive payment from their schools.
Newsom joined James and his business partners, Rich Paul and Maverick Carter, on Uninterrupted’s “The Shop” to make the signing official.
Lakers’ LeBron James on “fair pay to play”: If he had gone to OSU, “that 23 jersey would have been sold all over the place without my name on the back. My body would have been on the NCAA game 2004. The [arena] would have been sold out... Me & my mom didn’t have anything.” pic.twitter.com/3jYpbFzSna— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) September 30, 2019
“The [jig’s] up,” Newsom said on “The Shop,” which airs on HBO. “Fourteen-plus billion dollars goes to these universities and these colleges. A billion-plus revenue goes to the NCAA itself. The actual product, the folks who are putting their lives on the line and everything on the line, are getting nothing. [This act] is going to initiate dozens of other states to introduce similar legislation. It’s going to change college sports for the better by finally having the interests of the athletes on par with the interests of the institutions. Now we’re rebalancing that power.”
The Fair Pay to Play Act potentially has far-reaching implications. California colleges and universities — including Pac-12 Conference members Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC — could lose their NCAA memberships and conference affiliations if the NCAA does not alter its rules by 2023. The Pac-12 expressed its disappointment at the bill’s passage in a statement Monday, warning that it would have “very significant negative consequences,” including a “negative disparate impact on female student-athletes.”
“Our universities have led important student-athlete reform over the past years,” the statement read, “but firmly believe all reforms must treat our student-athletes as students pursuing an education, and not as professional athletes.”
The 34-year-old James, whose son Bronny is a 14-year-old high school freshman and a well-regarded basketball prospect, hailed the signing of the Fair Pay to Play Act as a “great day” and a “win for the state of California.” He also singled out former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who was the lead plaintiff in a 2009 lawsuit against the NCAA over the uncompensated use of football and basketball players in video games.
“It was an honor to have the governor come on our show and sign what we believe is a historical change,” James said while wearing a shirt that bore his “More than an athlete” tagline. “I was one of those underprivileged kids. Obviously, I was fortunate enough and talented enough to skip college. I understand what those kids are going through. I feel for those kids. That’s why it was personal to me. … It’s the NCAA’s turn to step up.”