Marek Warszawski

New California law, while good for college athletes, could jeopardize Fresno State sports

About time the phony notion of amateurism in NCAA athletics got challenged on the legislative level.

Maybe 25 or 30 years ago tuition, room and board was fair compensation for college athletes. But that was before coaches started getting paid like corporate CEOs (with many of the same perks) and many athletic departments, drunk with TV revenues, started building lavish facilities that rival the Taj Mahal.

The scale has swung completely out of whack. On Monday morning, California Gov. Gavin Newsom restored some of that balance by announcing he has signed SB 206 into law, allowing the state’s college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.

“It’s going to initiate dozens of other states to introduce similar legislation,” Newsom said during an appearance on “The Shop,” a sports talk show that airs on HBO. “And it’s going to change college sports for the better by having now the interest finally of the athletes on par with the interests of the institution. Now we are rebalancing that power.”

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Let’s be clear: This legislation doesn’t compel universities to pay athletes or hand them anything beyond a scholarship. It simply means athletes, starting in 2023, would be allowed to sign outside endorsement deals and licensing contracts. They’d also be allowed to hire agents to represent them in these matters.

Of course, the NCAA and its member schools want to put a stop to all of this. As the Fair Pay To Play Act wound through Sacramento, the NCAA threatened its passage would “erase the critical distinction” between amateur and professional sports, create an uneven playing field and result in California “eventually” being unable to host NCAA competitions.

All of which is nothing but a smokescreen. What the NCAA is really afraid of is other states following California’s example.

Teetering on financial ruin

As you’ve probably guessed by my tone, I’m totally in favor of college athletes being allowed a larger slice of the revenue pie. But there would also be some unintended and potentially damaging consequences.

Namely, SB 206 could signal the end of Fresno State sports as we know them.

Opinion

Fresno State is not like USC, UCLA, Stanford or Cal. It does not get a $31 million distribution check from its conference (or anything close). It is not swimming in cash. It does not have opulent facilities.

In fact, Fresno State athletics teeter on a financial knife edge. If not for President Joseph Castro propping up the athletic department with millions in university support, several smaller sports would’ve been dropped long ago.

To make ends meet, the Bulldogs depend on local corporate sponsorship agreements. The last thing Athletic Director Terry Tumey needs is more competition for those dollars.

Bulldogs could make own deals

What would happen if a popular Bulldogs athlete was able to go out and make his own endorsement deals with Table Mountain Casino, Fresno Lexus or Me-n-Ed’s?

Think about it: An athlete with great local cachet (think Marcus McMaryion) would ask for much less money to endorse those companies than Fresno State as a whole. And why would those companies continue to sponsor the Bulldogs when they could get a McMaryion, in full uniform, on a billboard or in a TV spot for cheaper? They probably wouldn’t.

Which could result in a situation where Fresno State sees its already meager marketing power shrink.

I know for a fact that Fresno State administrators are wringing their collective hands over this, as are administrators at similar athletic departments. But when asked on the record, the university’s communications department referred me to a Cal State University position letter opposing SB 206.

How candid of them.

Now that bill has become state law, one part of me is pleased.. The entire notion of amateurism at the NCAA level is farcical. The other part doesn’t want to see Fresno State athletes, especially those competing in Olympic sports, suffer the consequences.

Editor’s note: This column was originally published Sept. 12 and has been updated to reflect Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signing of SB 206 on Sept. 30.

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Marek Warszawski writes opinion columns on news, politics, sports and quality of life issues for The Fresno Bee, where he has worked since 1998. He is a Bay Area native, a UC Davis graduate and lifelong Sierra frolicker. He welcomes discourse with readers but does not suffer fools nor trolls.
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