States Are Starting to Fix the NCAA — For the Wrong Reasons

George Pickens (#1) of the Georgia Bulldogs celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the second half of a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks on September 26 Fayetteville, Arkansas. Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Last week at Sanford Stadium, the college football home of the Georgia Bulldogs (which happens to be about a 10 minute walk from my house), Georgia Governor Brian Kemp got himself a photo op you know he’s been dreaming of his whole life:

Kemp, an Athens native and lifelong Bulldogs fan, clearly cherished getting to show up at the stadium of the team he adores, along with several of his UGA fan Republican legislators. (Heck, all the photo is missing is a painting of an old plantation in the background!) And he clearly relished the chance to talk up his team, burnishing his regular-guy credentials in the process.

One thing he didn’t seem to enjoy: talking about actually helping NCAA athletes — supposedly the purpose of the law he was promoting.

Kemp was in Athens to sign House Bill 617, which, as of July 1, will allow college athletes to earn money from endorsements off their name, image and likeness. This makes Georgia the most recent of a dozen states, including Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, to pass what are widely known as NIL laws. The first to pass one was California, back in September 2019. Governor Gavin Newsom signed the state’s bill live on HBO’s Uninterrupted right alongside its host, LeBron James, who had actively been fighting for the legislation for years.

The necessity of such regulations was obvious to anyone who had been paying any attention to the NCAA. Not only do college athletes go unpaid by the universities for whom they put their bodies and minds on the line but — until NIL laws came around — they could not even make money from third parties off their own celebrity, which actually separated them from the rest of the collegiate population. (As every school’s top Instagram influencer can tell you.) The California law cracked that door open for the first time. And it’s worth remembering, as recently as that law passed, just how dramatic and controversial this was less than two years ago. The Pac-12 Conference, which includes multiple teams from California, warned that the bill would “professionalize” college sports, and NCAA President Mark Emmert said California teams would likely be made ineligible to compete for NCAA championships.

Eighteen months later, almost the entire collegiate sports structure has caved, including Emmert himself, who is now actually pushing for all individual schools to allow endorsement deals for players in order to set a uniform standard.  What changed? Incentives, mostly. It became increasingly obvious after California signed its NIL, that athletes who played for California universities, far from being punished or ineligible, would benefit greatly by picking those schools — and that they would not be punished for doing so, despite Emmert’s threat. It turns out that making money is enticing to people. California schools carved out a massive recruiting advantage, and in college athletics, recruiting is the beginning, middle, and end of everything. Athletic programs everywhere naturally fretted that they’d fall behind if another state’s schools could give players something they couldn’t.

In short order, legislation that was initially meant to begin reforming an increasingly archaic and cruel college sports athletic model, turned, quickly, into a way for politicians to score cheap political points by claiming that they are just trying to help the local team. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did this just last year, flanked by former football stars from both Florida State and Miami. And Kemp was explicit about it last week. “As an alumni myself, I’m a little biased, but I believe that this is going to give [Georgia coach Kirby Smart] every bit of help he needs to bring home the national championship,” Kemp said. There was nothing about the law being just, or long overdue, or any of that. The closest he came to a moral endorsement was, “I think this is a right step to try to protect the student-athlete but also give athletes the benefit of what others are getting across the sports world.” He did make it clear he thought the bill would avoid putting Georgia — the football team, not the state — at a competitive disadvantage: “We shouldn’t have other states that have something more than another state when we’re dealing with the same sports.”

The whole thing sent a pretty clear message to voters: I want the Bulldogs to win. Don’t you want the Bulldogs to win? When  Stacey Abrams runs against me come November 2022, remember who got the ‘Dawgs all those wins.  For proof that Kemp cares little about college athletes’ financial well-being, just look at the text of the law, which includes a poison pill he and the Georgia legislature snuck into the bill. This provision gives Georgia schools the power to withhold 75 percent of a player’s earnings, to only be given out when they graduate or leave school. It also requires players, if they earn NIL endorsement money, to “take five hours of a financial literacy and life skills workshop to prepare for receiving the compensation.”

In other words: We’ll let you get paid for your name, image or likeness, but we’ll hold onto your money until you prove to us you can handle it. This infantilizes the athletes who should be empowered.

Fortunately for schools in Georgia that are trying to recruit these players, universities are allowed to opt out of that provision, and you can be certain every single one of them will do so, immediately. (For all those Republican politicians in that photo opportunity above, it’s notable who made sure not to be in it: Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks, school president Jere Morehead, and head coach Kirby Smart.) That’s the triangulation Kemp and other lawmakers are going for: Playing up what they’re doing for football recruiting and playing down the people their laws might actually help. Kemp surely knew no school would opt in to the bill’s restrictions. But he gets to show his base that he tried not to change an unfair system too much.

He’s not alone in this: It was also the thinking of DeSantis in Florida and lawmakers in Mississippi, one of whom flat out admitted that he didn’t like the new law but thought it would help teams in the state win games. (“I don’t think any state is happy about this legislation, but we’re seeing this as a necessity,” said one. “We don’t want to lose a competitive edge in recruiting, both athletically and academically, especially against those in the Southeastern Conference.”)

The NIL laws are good for student-athletes, They are also surely just the start. But Kemp and other governors don’t see what’s happening as the first step in a long-overdue revolution in college sports. They see a chance for their states’ football teams to win some more games — and for themselves to win some more votes.

States Are Starting to Fix the NCAA — For the Wrong Reasons