California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, known as SB 206, was signed into law on Monday. It allows student athletes in the state to make money from their name, image, or likeness, which means your favorite UCLA football player can be paid for endorsements, autographs, and other employment that comes from them playing a sport.
The Pac-12 responded quickly, releasing a mostly predictable and boilerplate statement — save for one phrase, bolded in the quote below.
...This legislation will lead to the professionalization of college sports and many unintended consequences related to this professionalism, imposes a state law that conflicts with national rules, will blur the lines for how California universities recruit student athletes and compete nationally, and will likely reduce resources and opportunities for student athletes in Olympic sports and have a negative disparate impact on female student-athletes.
There’s no explanation included with that statement. It feels like a line meant to scare people who might be giving this whole “paying student athletes” thing some serious thought. Because if SB 206 is going to hurt female student athletes, after all the work they’ve done to gain even a minor foothold in college sports, is it worth it?
That would be a question worth asking if SB 206 could negatively impact female athletes in a significant way. But the bill stands to actually help them. It might not be as obvious for female student athletes as it is male student athletes, since male athletes play the most popular sports that bring in the most money for their schools. But removing the NCAA’s draconian restrictions on making money could majorly impact female college athletics.
Imagine what deals Arike Ogunbowale could have made in 2018 after she made last-second game-winning baskets in two straight games for Notre Dame in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. She reached national prominence and was the pride of Notre Dame. Both national brands and local businesses would have been lining up to offer her endorsements and personal appearances — if they’d been allowed to.
The local aspect is the silver bullet for bills like SB 206. While the world at large only heard about Ogunbowale after she made those game-winning baskets for Notre Dame, she was well known in South Bend, Indiana. For many college athletes, especially women, their fame is local. At some schools, the women’s sports are more successful and therefore more popular than their male counterparts. Bills like SB 206 give them a chance to profit off their talent and fame in their own communities.
It goes beyond basketball. Katelyn Ohashi, a former UCLA gymnast, went viral in January with her irresistibly joyful floor routine. She was trending on Twitter, the video was featured on SportsCenter, and Stephen Colbert even tried to imitate her on his late night show. Ohashi could have signed endorsement deals, filmed commercials, and gotten paid for personal appearances, but wasn’t able to do anything that could make her money while UCLA and the NCAA got gobs of free publicity.
On LeBron James’ “The Shop,” Ohashi recalled that NCAA president Mark Emmert called to congratulate her after the routine went viral. Her response? “You should be thanking me.”
"It's going to change college sports for the better by having the interest of the athletes on par with the interest of the institutions."— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) September 30, 2019
Full conversation with @KingJames, @mavcarter, @ed_obannon, @katelyn_ohashi, @dianataurasi, and @richpaul4 as @GavinNewsom signs #SB206. pic.twitter.com/aIVA2b4bUq
Aside from the viral aspect, college athletics is the last and best chance most female athletes have to play their sport at the highest level. Women excel in sports like gymnastics, track & field, volleyball, softball, and field hockey — sports that can be very popular at the college level but have little or no professional presence. Despite the Pac-12’s protestations, bills like SB 206 give women in those sports the chance to profit from their talent in their own communities, and it’s likely the only chance they’ll ever have to do so.
Looking at SB 206 essentially debunks the Pac-12’s assertion that the bill would hurt female student athletes. But as Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel wrote on Monday, the threat to female student athletes may be coming from the Pac-12 itself. According to Wetzel, the line implies Pac-12 schools would hold “Olympic sports” and traditionally female-dominated sports (like gymnastics) hostage, threatening to stop or lower their funding because of the revenue lost from SB206. Donors could just hire an athlete and pay them directly instead of donating to the athletic department, and the Pac-12 is implying that Olympic and women’s sports would be a casualty of the decreased revenue.
In one phrase, the Pac-12 both threatened women’s collegiate sports and used female student athletes as a shield. That’s pretty impressive, even in an industry as shameless as college athletics. They want you to think that their opposition to SB 206 isn’t about the money, but about the future of college athletics — especially women’s sports. Never mind that many schools need to be forced to offer women anything beyond the most basic athletic opportunities. They don’t want you to realize that any of the Pac-12’s schools could use their exorbitant reserves to field more teams and offer better facilities, or spend time and money lobbying the NCAA to increase its scholarship limits, which would not just improve recruitment but allow more students to benefit from playing sports at the collegiate level.
Pac-12 schools could do any of those things if they cared enough. But instead, the Pac-12 is using this opportunity to cry poor and threaten Olympic and women’s sports. They want you to ignore that 8 of the Pac-12’s member schools have endowments well above the $1 billion mark, and have used excess athletics money to enrich themselves while insisting that student athletes shouldn’t be paid for making that money for them.
Allowing student athletes to be paid for their name, image and likeness will give them more freedom, power, and control over their lives. The only negative impact for female student athletes is whatever the Pac-12 and its member schools decide to create as retribution — retribution for losing some of their unfettered power to control their athletes to make money for the school and no one else.
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