MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This week the nexus of the college sports universe is California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will allow California student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness beginning in 2023.
The signing itself was an orchestrated piece of political theater, with Newsom appearing on LeBron James’ show “The Shop” rather than doing it at his desk. James is a peculiar advocate given that he exercised his right to skip college and began profiting immediately, but an audience is an audience.
Theatrics aside, California won’t be the only state applying pressure on the NCAA to change its rules about player compensation. Similar bills are already being drafted in Florida, Pennsylvania and both Carolinas.
West Virginia football coach Neal Brown said the legislation is not on his radar with Texas looming this week.
“Bottom line, I don’t really have an opinion on it. My deal is tell me the rules and I’ll abide by them,” Brown said. “I’m not into making legislation. That’s boring, I get it. Honestly, I’m trying to figure out how to get first downs. I haven’t thought about what the California legislature has done.”
An important distinction getting lost in the debate is that the law does not mandate that the schools themselves should be paying salaries. It’s merely allowing athletes to earn compensation through endorsements or jersey sales.
Mountaineers defensive lineman Reese Donahue has studied the bill, and he’s not sure it is the right direction for college athletics.
“A lot of people might hate me for this, but I’m kind of in the minority of student-athletes,” Donahue said. “…Obviously we’re in college, we’re not trying to make a bunch of money. I don’t think we should be paid millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars like pro athletes do. That’s what the NFL is for. That’s why they are what they are.”
Donahue’s specific concern with the California bill is that it could cleave locker rooms between players making endorsement money and those who are not.
“I think if you start paying college athletes or letting them have their endorsement deals, I don’t think it’s good the way California wants it to have,” Donahue said. “And that’s coming from a player. A lot of players disagree because they want money. But it changes the game.”
Donahue only has to look an hour north to Pittsburgh to see the worst-case scenario of how money could affect team unity.
“You also have to look at if you sell thousands and thousands of jerseys of your star quarterback, whoever that might be. The four guys on the defensive line, I might sell 200 jerseys,” Donahue said. “Now you’ve created separation within the program. And now it becomes an individual sport, not a team sport… if you start individualizing the sport, you lose that team aspect. It becomes like an Antonio Brown situation.”
All that said, Donahue believes there is need for reform that would allow for players to earn more money. Each player gets a stipend or scholarship money every month, but it essentially covers only the basics.
“I do think we should get paid more than we do, because we get about $1,000 a month. A little more or a little less depending on who you are,” Donahue said. “By the time you pay for food and rent, it’s almost gone. I do think our stipend money or our scholarship money should be increased a little bit to make it easier on us.”
He also believes that players should be able to profit from their likeness provided that everyone gets an equal share. Donahue would like to see EA Sports restart its NCAA Football franchise with players getting a cut for their likeness, as well as a share of jersey sales going into a pool that is evenly distributed.
“Everybody’s on the game. They cut it that way, that would be great. I wouldn’t complain about it at all,” Donahue said. “If you stock every number in the building for jersey sales and we get a cut of that, that would be nice.”
He would also like to see the NCAA loosen up rules so that players can market themselves to go to autograph signings or other promotional events.
“There’s a lot of things I would love to do even if I couldn’t profit from it,” Donahue said. “Numerous people reach out to me and are like ‘Can you promote this? Can you do this?’”
He cannot. Donahue said these types of opportunities would be useful for most players when they leave college and enter the workforce.
“Maybe a car dealership asks me to be the face of their program. And I would love to be the face of their program even if I don’t get the benefits,” he said. “That would be great marketing for me when I’m out of college. I wouldn’t necessarily want to profit from it, but it would be nice to be promoted as a person.”
Donahue’s belief is that the California law is structured to benefit a few rather than the whole. It is that, rather than the notion of players making a few extra dollars, that is the basis of his opposition. He wants any reforms to keep the team concept at the forefront.
“When people root for the Mountaineers, they root for the Mountaineers. They don’t root for so-and-so and so-and-so,” Donahue said. “That’s what fantasy football is for. That’s what the NFL is for. That’s not what college football is about.”