California lawmakers are debating whether to let student athletes sign endorsement deals and hire agents in a move that could upend the multibillion-dollar business of college sports.
A proposed law wending through the state Assembly would scrap policies that strictly limit the ways in which college athletes can profit from their name, image and likeness, raising the prospect of private sponsorships long off-limits for students.
But universities across the state are opposing the law, arguing it would put them in direct conflict with National Collegiate Athletic Association policies.
The bill comes amid an ongoing national debate over the extent to which students can financially benefit from their athletic performance.
The legislation's backers argue it is a matter of fairness.
"This is a civil rights issue of today," said Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Gardena, California, and an author of the legislation.
The NCAA's president suggested that California schools may be prohibited from participating in national championships.
"When contrasted with current NCAA rules, as drafted the bill threatens to alter materially the principles of intercollegiate athletics and create local differences that would make it impossible to host fair national championships," NCAA President Mark Emmert wrote to lawmakers. "As a result, it likely would have a negative impact on the exact student-athletes it intends to assist."
The opposition has left lawmakers questioning whether to force a showdown between California's universities and the NCAA or let the NCAA address the issue on its own at a national level.
The Indianapolis-based organization announced last month that it will create a working group to review policies on allowing student athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness. The working group will release its findings in October.
Emmert asked lawmakers postpone consideration of the bill until next year.
But other lawmakers backing the bill are blunt that the state is well-positioned to nudge the NCAA along on the issue, noting California is home to powerhouse NCAA programs, from the University of California, Los Angeles to Stanford University.
"The NCAA could change these rules," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Democrat from Berkeley and co-author of the bill.
She added: "This is what California does. We lead, and we lead with our values."
Skinner noted the bill would not take effect until 2023, leaving time for the NCAA and schools to address the law.
Senate Bill 206 seems to have momentum, with the Senate passing it by a vote of 31-5 last month. An Assembly committee approved the measure on Tuesday. It goes next to the Assembly Higher Education Committee with the backing of civil rights groups and sports agents.
Some experts also dismiss the suggestion that the NCAA could stop the state from adopting such a law.
"Any attempt by the NCAA to ban California schools for complying with California law would very likely be seen as illegal under antitrust law as well as perhaps under other parts of California law," said Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College at the City University of New York who consults on sports law.
The proposed law is just the latest turn in an ongoing debate over college sports, which has included lengthy litigation and talk of everything from paying student athletes to letting student athletes form unions, much like professional athletes.
Proponents of Senate Bill 206 in California argue it will give athletes with professional league prospects a reason to stay in school and bring a measure of fairness to the economics of college sports they argue is lacking. But backers also say it could also help students in sports that have lower profiles and come with fewer opportunities for making a living as a professional athlete by letting them earn money while competing at the college level.
Federal lawmakers have taken up the issue, too, with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, publishing a report on college sports earlier this year calling on athletics programs to compensate students.
Edelman argued that the political dynamics in Congress may leave states best positioned to act on the issue, however.
Legislative aides said in an analysis of the bill that it represents uncharted territory.
The NCAA might refuse to budge, the bill might end up in court or the NCAA might create some way for athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness, aides noted.
For example, the NCAA already allows athletes to accept prize money for Olympic winnings.