The Impact of California’s Athletes’ Rights Bill

Newly signed legislation allowing athletes to profit from their names and likenesses is a step in the right direction, but it's only a start, write Welch Suggs and Solomon Hughes.

October 1, 2019
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California governor Gavin Newsom has just signed SB206, allowing college athletes to market their names, images and likenesses. The bill is already disrupting college sports. This is welcome news, but it is not nearly enough.

For generations, going back even before the first college football game 150 years ago, America’s unique approach to promoting big-time sports in college has segregated athletes from the student body, walling them off from some educational experiences while demanding that they give up basic rights to support the machine.

An entire industry has been built on televising the actions of 18- to 22-year-olds on the court and field, and only a handful benefit. The costs, however, are spread much more widely. Consider the control athletic programs exercise over athletes’ lives and academic careers. A growing number of athletics programs use location trackers to check class attendance. Athletes at many institutions are discouraged from pursuing challenging academic programs for fear of impinging on practice times.

Seasons are getting longer, taking more time out of the learning environments of the classroom and larger campus culture. And of most concern, all athletes must participate in strenuous, sometimes barbaric off-season workouts. A number of football players have died as a result of workout regimes put together by strength and conditioning coaches whose careers hinge on athletes’ performances on the field.

At the same time, college leaders themselves are handing over access and control of their students' schedules to media companies in pursuit of royalty payments. This results in travel, additional stress and more missed time on campus and in the classroom. And such practices spread to teams whose contests never appear on television.

SB206 is welcome. It wrenches some of the control over athletes from the hands of college sports administrators and coaches. It allows athletes to do what enterprising students do every day: access the value afforded by their innate talents and abilities. The bill has already inspired similar legislation in New York and South Carolina, along with warnings of doom and perdition from the NCAA and athletics directors in other states.

However, it does little to address the broader issues we identify above and that we see on campuses every day. First, most of the athletes who could actually profit from their names, images and likenesses already do profit from their time in college sports: on draft day. The exposure provided by college sports enhances the value of athletes to professional leagues in football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

Second, and much more broadly, it reinforces the short-term pursuit of wins, championships and exposure that has transformed college athletics into a winner-take-all market that commodifies athletes and sacrifices their long-term development as people, students and athletes. The control over athletes exerted by adults with a financial stake in the enterprise is a much more insidious problem that must be addressed both within and outside higher education.

When we’re done litigating and legislating over athletes’ economic rights, we should give a lot more thought to these bigger issues. How can we ensure that coaches are actually preparing athletes for success on the playing field? How do we evaluate whether athletes are gaining the maturity and skills to navigate both their academic pursuits and their later careers? How do we know if participating in college sports actually provides the learning experiences we think it does -- leadership, self-discipline, team play, sportsmanship and so on?

The goal of higher education is, or should be, to empower students to pursue their dreams, equipping them with skills and knowledge while opening their eyes to the challenges and opportunities of the world. Participating in sports can enhance this process tremendously, but inside the machine that is big-time college athletics, it is no guarantee.

One of us was recently on the campus of a Pac-12 school, home to one of college football’s most prominent teams. Following a gathering of athletes where players shared how they were faring personally and spiritually, a football player revealed some personal details about his life and issues he was struggling with as a newer college student.

As he was in conversation with his peer athletes from different sports, one of his football coaches walked by and gruffly exclaimed, “You need to go to bed.”

Everyone in the group got the message: you of all people aren't here for the philosophical conversations that shape college students. Your body needs rest so that it can perform for the machine.

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Solomon Hughes is a research fellow and actor who played basketball at the University of California, Berkeley. Welch Suggs is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who ran track at Rhodes College.

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