Colorado lawmakers are about to join the debate over whether student athletes should be paid — a debate already occurring in statehouses in Washington state and California.
Two Colorado senators are planning to introduce legislation this week that would let the state’s colleges pay their athletes and let the student athletes accept endorsement deals — both contrary to the rules of the NCAA, which governs college sports.
The question of whether amateur athletes should get compensation beyond a free education, room and board has been argued in countless bars, across campuses and on social media over the years. But the debates were always theoretical because the NCAA has shown no indication it will change its rules against student compensation, and courts have repeatedly stopped short of forcing the issue.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Bridges and Republican Sen. Owen Hill hope to change that by adding colleges and college athletes to Colorado’s consumer protection laws.
Their bill would allow students to receive money from their universities directly and/or from endorsement deals, as well as give both the right to sue if the NCAA pushed back.
“My hope is this doesn’t end in a lawsuit,” said Bridges, of Greenwood Village. “This bill is about getting the NCAA to do the right thing.”
Attorney General Phil Weiser could also defend the law in court if it was directly challenged.
“The current system benefits a bunch of rich, mostly white people at the expense of mostly minority students,” said Hill, of Colorado Springs.
He pointed to the NCAA’s Division I men’s basketball tournament, a premier annual sports event that concluded Monday night, as an example. Kantar Media estimated that the tournament brought in $1.29 billion in television ad revenue in 2017.
“The schools flew out their big donors and sponsors, but the kids’ parents, who couldn’t afford to buy tickets, watched it on TV,” Bridges said. “That’s just wrong.”
Hill and Bridges aren’t the only state lawmakers taking aim at the NCAA this year. Lawmakers in Washington state and California are also debating similar legislation. In addition, a bill introduced in the U.S. House in March would let student athletes be paid for the use of their name, image or likeness.
Former NFL and University of Colorado running back Chris Brown agreed with the idea behind these different proposals. The football broadcaster has long pushed for pay for college athletes.
“A lot of these scholarship athletes don’t come from good family situations,” Brown told The Denver Post on Tuesday. “I didn’t ski until I got into the NFL. I couldn’t afford a lift ticket. I couldn’t afford to rent the equipment. You want to just be able to do what the other students on campus do and not be isolated because you can’t afford it.”
He thinks paying student athletes a modest salary would help stop some NCAA violations like the 2010 scandal that bubbled up when Ohio State football players were caught trading their jerseys and other memorabilia for tattoos.
“These kids would have some money in their pockets … ,” Brown said. “It’s very difficult, particularly during in season, to do the demands of your sport and hold a part-time job. It’s just laughable.”
The NCAA didn’t respond to a request for comment, and a University of Colorado spokesperson said the school couldn’t comment until it has seen the bill.
Washington State University came out against the bill proposed in that state’s legislature. One concern: that the NCAA might revoke the university’s membership in the Pac-12 Conference.
“We’d rather not be the guinea pig for this national situation,” school spokesperson Chris Mulick said, according to The Spokesman Review.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett argued in an opinion piece for The Denver Post that compensation for student athletes has improved a lot over the years. Students receive stipends for living expenses to cover the full “cost of attendance” as well as meal cards and transportation home for family emergencies.
“The real story of reform is not the kind of story that goes viral,” Thompson and Burnett wrote. “But these reforms are having a real impact on the day-to-day lives of thousands of college athletes.”
Student athletes, they said, are not employees.
Brown and the bill sponsors disagree on that point, arguing that many students are paid modest stipends during their college careers. Brown said he thinks ideally all student athletes on a team would get the same modest salary, and those salaries would differ based on the school’s division and the sport.
“The pursuit of endorsements gets a little tricky,” Brown said. “The practical realities of allowing students to seek sponsorships or endorsements is it only takes care of a select group of players.”
That’s probably true when it comes to bigger brands such as Nike, Hill said. But he sees a place for the local tennis shop or running shoe store to offer smaller deals to local athletes.