SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Athletes at California colleges could hire agents and sign endorsement deals under a bill the state Legislature sent to the governor on Wednesday, setting up a potential confrontation with the NCAA that could jeopardize the athletic futures of powerhouse programs like USC, UCLA and Stanford.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has not said whether he will sign it. But the NCAA Board Of Governors is already urging him not to, sending him a letter Wednesday saying the bill "would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics" and would have drastic consequences for California's colleges and universities.
"Because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage, (it) would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions," the letter said. "These outcomes are untenable and would negatively impact more than 24,000 California student-athletes across three divisions."
Newsom has 30 days to either sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
The bill would allow student-athletes to hire agents and be paid for the use of their names, images or likenesses. It would stop California universities and the NCAA from banning athletes that take the money. If it becomes law, it would take effect Jan. 1, 2023.
"I'm sick of being leveraged by the NCAA on the backs of athletes who have the right to their own likeness and image, this is about fairness," Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove, a Los Angeles Democrat, said Monday.
The Senate voted 39-0 to pass the bill, which has the endorsement of NBA superstar LeBron James, who skipped college and went directly to the NBA before the league changed its rules to require players to be at least one year removed from high school before entering the draft. But the bill could impact James' 14-year-old son, who is a closely watched basketball prospect in Los Angeles.
The NCAA is the governing body for college sports. But membership is voluntary. Athletes can get valuable scholarships, but the NCAA has long banned paying athletes to preserve the academic missions of colleges and universities. But college sports have since morphed into a multibillion-dollar industry, igniting a debate over the fairness of not paying the industry's most visible labor force.
Earlier this year, NCAA President Mark Emmert told lawmakers that passing the bill would be premature, noting the NCAA has a committee — led by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith and Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman — that is exploring the issue. Their report is due in October.
The NCAA committee has already said it won't endorse a plan to pay athletes as if they were employees, but they could ease limits on endorsement deals for athletes. The NCAA already lets athletes accept money in some instances. Tennis players can accept up to $10,000 in prize money and Olympians can accept winnings from their competitions.
The bill still puts some restrictions on athletes, such as forbidding them from signing endorsement deals that conflict with their school's existing contracts.
Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, though he did not cast a vote. He said allowing athletes to make money could make universities in rural areas less competitive because there could be fewer sponsorship opportunities in the area.
But other lawmakers argued banning college athletes from being paid was a violation of their freedoms.
"Playing college sports should not have to come at the cost of personal liberty, dignity, self-expression or any other value this legislature is charged with protecting," said Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley of Rocklin. "Let's send a loud and clear message to the NCAA."
But in and around California, schools and conferences believe this legislation might not be the best solution.
The Pac-12, which includes Southern California, UCLA, Stanford and Cal, issued a statement Wednesday reiterating its previous stance — asking the California Legislature to delay the debate until the NCAA announces formal proposals.
"We all want to protect and support our student-athletes, and the Pac-12 has played a leadership role in national reforms for student-athletes over the past years," the statement said. "The question is what's the best way to continue to support our student-athletes. We think having more information and informed views will be helpful."
J.D. Wicker, the athletic director at San Diego State, a Mountain West Conference member, agreed, saying "California weighing in on this complicates that."
"I think the frustration for me is that they probably don't truly understand the NCAA and how we work as a governing body," Wicker said. "Again, it's schools across 50 states and it's all of us working together, whereas the state of California will only harm California schools."