Supreme Court, NCAA decisions embolden advocates for college athlete compensation in California

Cal football players line up against ASU on September 27, 2019. Confronted with a California law allowing student athletes to earn money from endorsements, the NCAA has shifted its policy on athlete pay. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Advocates for college athlete compensation in California are on a hot streak. First the state passed a first-in-the-nation law allowing players to sign paid endorsement deals, and 20 states followed its example. Now, with both a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and a National Collegiate Athletic Association rule change challenging the idea that students shouldn’t make money from athletics, legislators are pushing to move up the effective date of the California law to this fall and expand it to cover community college athletes.

“The amateurism ideals have been weakening over time, not only with just player movements, advocate movements, but also because of litigation that’s currently playing out,” said Eddie Comeaux, a professor of higher education at UC Riverside who studies college athletics.

The NCAA has previously barred athletes from earning money for their performance, aside from scholarships. But the Supreme Court’s 9–0 ruling June 21 allows colleges to also cover as much as $6,000 per year in education-related expenses for athletes, such as laptops and study abroad programs. While it didn’t directly strike down the NCAA’s amateurism model, a concurring opinion from Justice Brett Kavanaugh signaled a willingness to do so, spurring hope among advocates that more avenues for player compensation could be on the horizon. 

Then Wednesday, the NCAA announced that it won’t penalize athletes for taking advantage of state laws like California’s that allow them to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness. 

“With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a press release. 

“The Supreme Court’s ruling basically told the NCAA you’ve got to follow the law, you’re not immune to antitrust, you cannot be a monopoly,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, the author of the Fair Pay to Play Act, which passed the California Legislature in 2019. She’s now pushing a bill that amends the law to take effect Sept. 1, rather than in 2023. It passed the Assembly’s higher education committee this week, and would need to receive a two-thirds vote by the Assembly and be signed by the governor to become law.

State laws giving college athletes the ability to pursue money-making opportunities also went into effect Thursday in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, New Mexico and Mississippi. 

College athlete endorsements on social media could eventually become a $2 billion dollar market, said Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University and the founder of an app called Sprter, which helps players build and monetize their personal brands. Kunkel said his research found that the average college athlete with a few thousand followers could expect to make around $2,000 a year in additional income from social media endorsements. 

“Most people won’t get rich off of them, but, you know, if you’re making $2,000 extra a year, it’s 50 bucks a week, it’s a little bit here, it’s a little bit there,” he said. 

Athletes on the Sprter app can sign endorsement deals, sell social media shoutouts and book in-person experiences such as a training session with fans. It’s just one of a number of ventures already sprouting up as the new NCAA rules take effect this week. Hanna and Haley Cavinder, twin sisters who play for Fresno State’s basketball team, told ESPN they had already signed their first endorsement deal with Boost Mobile on Wednesday.

Unlike the original Fair Play to Pay Act, Skinner’s new bill would afford California’s community college athletes the same freedom to profit from their name, image and likeness as their peers at four-year universities. The bill has the support of the California Community College Chancellor’s office. 

“Students should not have to sit by and watch others profit off of their hard work and labor without being equitably compensated for it, just because they participate in college athletics – and that includes our many community college student-athletes as well,” spokesperson Rafael Chávez said in a statement to CalMatters. 

John Beam, the athletic director and head football coach at Oakland’s Laney College, said the inclusion of the state’s community college athletes would be a huge win. He said that while not all athletes will be able to take advantage of the money-making opportunities, it’s an important first step to restoring a sense of humanity to how college athletes are treated. 

“We have kids that are hungry every day and I can’t bring, you know, Cup of Noodles in to give them,” Beam said. “We’re not talking about a meal plan, we’re talking about survival food. So I’m hoping that it trickles down to allow us to really care for our student athletes like we should.”

Athletes including Elias Escobar, a football player at Laney College, said the ability to make some extra cash could help with basic needs such as rent, food and gas money for his commute to campus. 

Being an athlete, Escobar said, is “like a full-time job and I’m not getting paid for it.” 

“There were times I didn’t even go to class because I didn’t have any gas money to put in my car, or like, I’m going to school and not eating all day,” he said.

California’s two public university systems, the University of California and California State University, said they were monitoring the bill. “UC continues to work with Senator Skinner, and members of the state Legislature, to ensure that the University is prepared for an accelerated implementation date of Sept. 1,” spokesperson Ryan King said in a statement.

Some advocates for college players want to go even further. A bill this year by state Sen. Sydney Kamlager would have required colleges to pay their athletes a royalty for use of their name, image and likeness if the revenue a sports program generates is more than double the amount it awards in athletic scholarships.  The bill, introduced when Kamlager was an Assemblymember, would also have beefed up enforcement of Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in sports and other educational programs, and placed a cap on salaries for college coaches. 

It stalled in the Assembly. But the recent decisions by the Supreme Court and NCAA could pave the way for California to take more aggressive action on athlete compensation going forward, said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association, which advocates for the rights of college athletes.  

“A 9-0 decision saying that this is an exploitative industry and college athletes deserve more compensation should be a green light for the state of California to once again reshape college sports in a way that’s more equitable for players,” Huma said. 

Reagan is an intern with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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