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Another Voice: Paying athletes would take fairness out of college sports

By Gary A. Olson

Last week, the California legislature passed the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow collegiate athletes to hire agents to represent them in obtaining business and sponsorship deals based on the their name, image or likeness. Gov. Gavin Newsom has 30 days to sign or veto the bill.

The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from being compensated and has cautioned the governor that enacting the bill would place the state in violation of the NCAA and would thus make the state’s 24,000 athletes ineligible to compete in NCAA championships.

Proponents of the bill portray the NCAA as an exploitative bureaucracy profiteering from athletes’ name, image or likeness while forbidding them from doing so. At first glance, the proponents tell a compelling story: The NCAA and member colleges often use student likenesses to promote games, championships and even the organization itself. But the reality is much different.

First, the NCAA is a nonprofit membership organization composed of and run by the members. The whole point of the NCAA – or at least a major one – is to ensure fairness in collegiate athletics throughout the country, from the rules that govern how particular sports are played, to the ways championships are determined, to what member schools can and can’t do in recruiting athletes. Without this structure, fairness would disintegrate and chaos would ensue.

A foundational principle of the NCAA is that professional and collegiate sports are fundamentally different endeavors. Student-athletes are students first; athletics is secondary to their college experience. In order to ensure a level playing field among athletes and institutions, NCAA rules regulate what students can receive from their institutions and elsewhere.

That’s because money can have a corrupting influence on collegiate athletics. Once athletes are able to generate compensation in the collegiate arena, the crucial distinction between professional and amateur sports evaporates, and some schools will have unfair advantages in recruiting student-athletes. It would then become impossible to conduct fair competitions on a national scale.

What’s more, compensation would introduce another kind of unfairness: only one or a few students on any given team would likely have the kind of celebrity that would generate significant money, while their teammates would not. That would erode team cohesion.

Proponents of the California bill titled it the “Fair Pay to Play Act,” but the real result if this act becomes law will be that it will destroy the very structure of rules and regulations that have for decades ensured fairness in collegiate sports throughout the nation.

Gary A. Olson is president of Daemen College and a member of the NCAA’s Board of Governors.

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