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Leveling the field for college athletes

By Jessica Bartholow, Western Center Policy Advocate

We are pleased that The Fair Pay to Play Act, introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner and supported by Western Center, was signed by Governor Newsom this week. The law will allow college athletes to be paid what they are already making (currently for someone else) from their name, image, likeness or athletic reputation.

Western Center supported this legislation for a multitude of reasons, but primarily because of our commitment to economic and racial justice.

In California, more than half of NCAA Division I and Division II colleges have one or more teams with graduation rates below 60 percent. Approximately 40 percent of NCAA Division I and Division II athletes say they don’t have enough time to keep up with academics during the season, and many say athletics prevent them from taking classes. To add insult to injury, California’s Black athletes are over-represented in revenue-producing sports, but suffer the lowest graduation rates.

While the idea that athletes with scholarships are getting the opportunity of a lifetime through their college education has marketing appeal, the fact of the matter is that athletes in the highest profile, most lucrative, and most demanding sports — football and men’s basketball — are the least likely to realize that benefit. According to 2012 federal graduation rate information, only 47 percent of NCAA Division I men’s basketball players and 57 percent of football players graduate within six years.

As student athletes struggle to pay bills and stay in school (many of whom have the additional burden of caring for family members), the NCAA, coaches and other professionals don’t just make a living off of student athletes – they are rolling in the dough.

A 2011 report by the National College Players Association found that among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, 82 percent of athletes who live on campus and 90 percent of athletes who live off campus with “full” athletic scholarships live below the federal poverty level. The myth that college athletes shouldn’t receive payment for their labor because they receive a “full scholarship” or a “free ride” just doesn’t hold water.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, the average annual scholarship shortfall (out of pocket expenses) for each FBS “full” scholarship athlete was $3,285. What’s more, many collegiate athletes participate without a guaranteed scholarship or with no scholarship at all. Scholarships can be revoked for poor performance, or even failure to participate in “voluntary” workouts.

Despite significant out-of-pocket expenses college athletes must secure to stay in college, the time commitment they dedicate to their training, game-days, and travel make it practically impossible for athletes to obtain outside employment to provide for themselves or families. University studies have found that athletes spend 32 to 44 hours per week on their respective sports.

It’s also a myth that college athletes can go into debt as students because they will make enough to pay off the debt once they graduate. Case in point, the NCAA itself has said that less than one percent of women’s college basketball players will make it to the WNBA, and less than two percent of men’s college basketball, football, and soccer players will ever play professionally.

SB 206 does not require schools to pay athletes directly, nor does it allow these payments to affect scholarship offers or eligibility. It does include protections to prevent college athletes from becoming ineligible to play in NCAA competitions. Simply put, the law provides a path for collegiate athletes who already make money for their schools and for the NCAA to be paid some of that money as well – leveling the playing field for those out there on the field.