Marek Warszawski

College athletes deserve their fair share. But will California bill hurt Fresno State sports?

Optimism is order of day as Fresno State fans get preseason peek at football team

Fans, new and old, see good things in the 2017 Fresno State football team as it hosts Fan Appreciation Day on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, at Bulldog Stadium.
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Fans, new and old, see good things in the 2017 Fresno State football team as it hosts Fan Appreciation Day on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, at Bulldog Stadium.

About time the phony notion of amateurism in college athletics gets challenged on a legislative level.

Maybe 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 athletic departments, drunk with TV revenues, started building lavish facilities that rival the Taj Mahal.

The scale has swung so far out of balance that politicians have stepped in. SB 206, which this week garnered unanimous support from both houses of the California Legislature and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, would allow the state’s college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.

Let’s be clear: This bill doesn’t compel universities to pay athletes or give 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 winds through Sacramento, the NCAA has 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 this bill catching on and spreading to other states.

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, this bill could signal the end of Fresno State sports as we know them.

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 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. 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.

Newsom has given no indication whether he’ll sign the bill into law. One part of me thinks he should. 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.

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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.