The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This state senator once caused McDonald’s to change. No wonder she took on the NCAA.

California state Sen. Nancy Skinner helped pass a California law in 2019 that allows college athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
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SACRAMENTO — The latest sparkplug in American sports history has a CV of pioneering legislation so rangy that it includes both renovating college athletics and banning Styrofoam. She long since co-founded an international organization for sustainability, toiled in the anti-apartheid movement for South Africa from way over in Berkeley, met Nelson Mandela and alighted in Johannesburg during Mandela’s election. She’s that rare figure in the timeline of sports who has to get up mid-interview and mosey across the street to the statehouse for 10 minutes to vote on decriminalizing jaywalking.

Jaywalking is an art form in Berkeley, so she gets a kick out of that.

Of all the Americans to take the dusty, decrepit amateurism of college athletics and give it a mighty shake, how unlikely is 66-year-old California state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D)? She’s really unlikely and really not. Somehow, she’s the soul who penned the bill in 2019 that became the law in 2019 that swept the land state by state by state by 2021, superseding the NCAA and enabling college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL).

What to know about name, image and likeness and how it will affect the NCAA

But wait, of course she’s the one.

Who else can describe the parallel of NIL and Styrofoam?

“You know, I’m basically a social-justice advocate who became a legislator,” she said Tuesday in an interview across from the state capitol as the total of states enacting similar laws ballooned toward 20 and counting. “And so when it comes to exploitation, whether it’s exploitation of athletes or whoever it is, you know, it’s in my DNA to basically try to right that.”

So it’s this native Californian, this only person ever to serve on the Berkeley City Council as a (graduate) student, this good-humored sort who seems like one of those people who can get people involved in things they didn’t imagine getting involved in, and who habitually refers to the NCAA and the “NC2A?”

Yes, it is, as California strikes again — so often disparaged, then emulated.

On the one hand, Skinner grew up in the dullish days pre-Title IX — mostly in Palos Verdes beneath Los Angeles — and said, “There were no sports for me, and in fact it was weird, it was almost like you were a weird girl if you played sports, and then my younger sisters played sports and loved it, and I was like, ‘Why didn’t I get that opportunity?’”

On the other hand, she did grow up as the third of nine children in a family in which her father adored the San Francisco Giants, her maternal grandmother adored the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, her father followed Notre Dame football and booed Southern California football, and there does seem to have been some sort of living-room ruckus during a Giants-Dodgers game that caused damage to one of the family bobbleheads, thankfully not the Willie Mays.

On the one hand, she never spent much time around college football, that driver of revenue, even if she did happen by the steep “Tightwad Hill” sometimes to watch games for free while in college at Cal, and even if she did turn up by chance in the confusion of the “Play,” Cal’s five-lateral tour through the Stanford kickoff team and marching band on Nov. 20, 1982.

On the other hand, she did fancy Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he played as Lew Alcindor for UCLA from 1966 to 1969, and she did notice how he spoke even then of the college-sports economics that did seem sort of oddball.

The NCAA and Supreme Court took a small step to fix college sports. It’s not nearly enough.

Now, she’s had Abdul-Jabbar videoing her a birthday tribute.

What sport might she have played if encouraged?

“Basketball …,” she began.

What position?

“Basketball? Guard. Absolutely.”

What kind of guard would you have been?

“Aggressive.”

As a student at Cal, she heard sociologist Harry Edwards speak, his language rather blunt on the matter of college sports; by 2009-14, she did follow the Ed O’Bannon-led antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA; and by 2016, she did turn up at a Rotary Club event in Oakland with a talk from antitrust economist Andy Schwarz, who long has deemed the NCAA system suboptimal.

“Anyway, so at the end of it, as he’s leaving, I pulled him aside, and I said, ‘Can state law change this?’” she said. “I said, ‘I’m running for State Senate now, and you know, I’m trying to figure out, ‘Can we make a difference?’ And he goes, ‘Well, actually, it could, ’cause the NC2A’s own bylaws state that they must follow state law.’ I’m like, ‘Oh.’”

After all, she had done this sort of thing back in grad-school days with previously unsalaried teachers’ assistants, well before her seat in the California Assembly (2008-14), so she got elected to the California Senate in 2016, brought it up with her staff and learned from her staff that she was out of her mind. To take on the universities and their bales of money and sentiment and fears of ruin would qualify as uphill.

She waited until she didn’t wait anymore, and by 2019 she said to her then-chief of staff Marvin Deon, “Marvin, you don’t get to tell me no this time,” and so Deon and staff fellow Fred Williams studied the issue, and called up Schwarz and also Ramogi Huma at the college players’ association, and they all centered on the NIL approach, which Skinner hatched as SB 206 with Sen. Steven Bradford.

Skinner already had gathered indignation at realities such as women’s basketball star Diana Taurasi making zippo from sales of shirts with her own name at U-Conn., and when athletes learned of her bill and began ringing the office, they did tend to be women: Erin Cafaro, the Olympic rower who rowed at Cal, then Hayley Hodson, the former Stanford volleyball player. Of course, the bill would never go much of anywhere except that, wait, everybody supported it, as if it had unearthed some hushed tsunami of thinking. Maybe this legislator had a college-athlete daughter. Maybe that legislator found the NCAA and the universities sort of absurd. The bill became that rarity among rarities that ventures from uphill to downhill. By September 2019, it sailed above the NCAA’s vague warnings about potential penalties by 73-0 in the Assembly and 39-0 in the Senate, primed for enactment in 2023.

The Supreme Court’s decision confirms what we already knew: The NCAA is a con

Then it started sweeping startlingly dissimilar states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, all keeping up with the Californians, and with the prospective recruits, and with the sense of injustice, all of which Skinner watched with something shy of amazement and closer to a nod. Amazement did come with the Supreme Court ruling of 9-0 against the NCAA on June 21 in a case about benefits related to education, with its admonishments of the NCAA. The NCAA Division I Council chimed in with the flow on Monday and officially suspended its NIL rules in all sports on Wednesday. And as a batch of states had jumped ahead of California on their dates, with 10 state laws to begin Thursday, California had to rally back and yank its enactment across time from 2023 to Sept. 1, 2021, with SB 26, which zoomed through committee by consent in seconds on Tuesday, alongside an educational programs bill, in the Assembly Chamber beneath the Abraham Lincoln painting and three gaudy chandeliers.

“Once Arizona, Alabama, Texas and Georgia acted, I was like, ‘Okay, California, we’ve got to move our date. We can’t be behind those schools,’” Skinner said. “Those are the other, you know, big athletic — and Ohio — and we can’t be in a situation where we can’t recruit top athletes.”

She sounded almost like some recruiting geek even as life has established her as not that.

“It is that classic thing,” she said, “where someone who is much more intimate with all the whole sports world, the idea they would change it may have been much more daunting. I think it is true that, you could call it maybe naive, because when my staff told me, in my first idea, and they told me, ‘No way, you’re never going to get that through.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ You know, from my point of view, it’s like: ‘It’s so fair. What do you mean?’”

After all, it did sound nutty and naive to propose a Styrofoam ban for Berkeley on the Berkeley City Council in 1988, an idea McDonald’s disliked, except that the ban became the nation’s first, and McDonald’s bent because of its penchant for keeping everything uniform nationwide, which sounds rather like the “NC2A.” There’s the aha of a parallel, as is the idea of “saying no to a powerful interest,” as is Skinner’s conclusion: “And you know, sometimes naivete helps.”

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