I have seen the future.
A young man sits at a table before the cameras. His coach sits to his left, his athletic director to his right. His agent stands smiling off to the side. A bank of flagged microphones from ESPN, FOX Sports West and all the local sports talk stations are represented. This isn’t just another free-agent superstar signing on to play in Southern California. This is a 13-year-old future superstar signing a four-year deal worth $10 million to play for fill-in-the-blank High School.
Yes, high school. Crazy you say? Just wait.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a lefty both politically and back in the day on the pitcher’s mound at Santa Clara University, signed SB206, a law that should make every capitalist smile. On Jan. 1, 2023, the NCAA will no longer be allowed to deny college athletes the right to accept compensation for the use of their name, image or likeness. Meaning, the firewall prohibiting college athletes from earning money from the billions and billions they generate for colleges and universities (and the NCAA) has finally been breached.
Morally and legally Newsom is as right as the NCAA has been wrong. Amateur athletes have been a cash cow milked dry forever by major colleges and universities that continue to rake in gate receipts, broadcast rights and merchandising revenues totaling in the billions. The players who take the hits, suffer the concussions, the torn ACLs and heat-strokes during preseason double-sessions are offered scholarships and gut classes in exchange for the privilege of playing for dear ol’ Rah-Rah University. That’s if everything is on the up and up.
It isn’t. Under-the-table corruption has been nearly universal in college sports, yet every time a program gets busted, we’re shocked to discover there’s gambling in Casablanca. SB206 is a long-overdue first step toward bringing the money out of the shadows while reaffirming a fundamental right: the right to get paid for your work.
The NCAA justifies the current exploitation of athletes by waxing nostalgic about the purity of amateur sports. Major college football and basketball programs are about as amateur as the New York Yankees. In the pre-Jerry Sandusky scandal days, Penn State University was frequently described as a “football team with a school attached.” The same can be said for hundreds of colleges and universities who spend lavishly on sports programs to help raise their national or regional profiles, wine and dine big check-writing alums and ring, ring, ring the cash register with network and local broadcast rights deals, ticket sales, jerseys,T-shirts and bobblehead dolls.
SB206 does not mean college players will be paid to play football. Yet. But it’s just a matter of time.
We have the right to work in this county. Nobody thinks twice about a college biology major working in a lab while still in school. Why then is it wrong for a linebacker or a gymnast to be compensated for their efforts? Only small children are prohibited and even then, there are exceptions.
Under federal law, children as young as 14 can legally work with a permit. In California, there are also entertainment work permits for child performers. I worked with the Olsen twins on “Full House” when they could barely walk or talk. Ron “Opie” Howard learned his letters so he could sign autographs when he co-starred on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Sports are entertainment. What’s to stop the parents of a gifted youngster from applying for an entertainment work permit for their 10-year-old figure skater or tennis player? College recruiters were drooling over LeBron James’ son when he was only five. It is inevitable this will go to court and the right to work will be expanded to include student athletes.
SB206 will be replicated in other states, especially those red states where football and/or basketball is practically a religion. Can you imagine Nick Saban or Mike Krzyzewski (who earns $9 million a year) losing a prized recruit to Cal because the kid can make money in Berkeley but not in Tuscaloosa or Durham? For $9 mil a year, Krzyzewski better win some games.
While the focus is often (and rightly) on college sports, high school athletics are also big business and getting bigger with every new cable channel and streaming service. In Texas, the Allen High School Eagles play in 18,000 seat Eagle Stadium that cost $60 million to build. It’s the fifth-largest high school stadium in the Lone Star State.
The NCAA will undoubtedly challenge SB206 in court. So too will USC, UCLA, etc., etc. I will be shocked if it’s not upheld because the right to work is sacrosanct in this country, unless your name is Colin Kaepernick. SB206 portends big changes for amateur athletics and our culture. In the not-too-distant future, high schools and middle schools could very well bid against each other for free agents like the pros and your 6th grader could land his own line of shoes before he knows how to tie them.
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. He can be reached at [email protected]