News & Opinion

California pokes NCAA’s golden goose

College athletes could be on deck for a potential payday

Just imagine if Collin Morikawa had signed an endorsement deal with, say, Titleist while still playing college golf for California. Or maybe Justin Suh at Southern Cal, or Maverick McNealy during his Stanford days.

It’s no longer a far-fetched idea – and, no, it would not destroy college golf. Not at all.

WATC 2018 - Eisenhower Trophy R1
Collin Morikawa, shown during the 2018 Eisenhower Trophy event, might have been the sort of college golfer for whom California Senate Bill 206 could have helped.

This is uncomfortable and long-forbidden territory, the notion of college athletes receiving compensation in any form. NCAA officials want no disruption to their wealthy kingdom, naturally, but California Senate Bill 206 could force them to address the issue. That’s not a bad thing.

The proposed legislation, known as the Fair Pay to Play Act and sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would allow student-athletes to earn compensation for their image and likeness. That seems like a person’s fundamental right, but this conflicts with NCAA rules.

Hence, a looming showdown.

SB 206 passed the state Assembly and Senate last week with unanimous, bipartisan support. (New York state Sen. Kevin Parker proposed a similar bill in his state, with an added amendment requiring schools to directly pay student-athletes a share of revenue. A similar proposal also was filed in Florida.)

The California bill now sits on the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom; if he signs the legislation, it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023. Skinner built in three-plus years to give NCAA officials time to sort out the myriad challenges involved.

Barely three-plus minutes passed before the shouting started. Former quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner, went on a curious rant on ESPN, insisting that he “didn’t want to make a dollar” from sales of his wildly popular No. 15 jersey at Florida.

Just a guess, but this probably puts him in the minority.

Athletic scholarships are immensely valuable in all sports, from football to golf, but they don’t cover all expenses for student-athletes. And not all student-athletes have the means to afford an occasional meal out with friends, or a flight home to visit family.

SB 206 figures to have less impact on college golfers than football or basketball players, because fewer golfers are high-profile enough to profit from their image. Top players at California schools – such as Morikawa, Suh and McNealy in recent years – are the exception more than the rule.

They also are the exception in another way, because all three of them stayed in school for four years. That’s unusual among elite golfers – Tiger Woods left Stanford after two years, and Jordan Spieth bolted Texas after 1½ – but it might become more common if college athletes land the freedom to strike endorsement deals.

Stanford coach Conrad Ray politely sidestepped this and other questions when asked about SB 206 and its potential impact. “I think it’s an interesting topic,” Ray said. He declined to expand, because Cardinal coaches have been advised to avoid public comment. California schools, not surprisingly, are joining the NCAA in opposing the bill.

Another layer to consider: If the proposed legislation becomes law, could traditionally strong golf programs at Stanford (reigning men’s national champions), Cal, USC and UCLA have another recruiting tool to attract top talent?

That has been one aspect of the initial debate, fueled by a letter from NCAA officials to California legislators. The letter essentially threatened to bar California schools from competing for national championships if SB 206 becomes law, given the imbalanced playing field it would create.

It probably won’t come to that. More likely, the NCAA – if unsuccessful in its efforts to lobby Newsom to veto the bill – will need to show some flexibility and grant its athletes at least some control over their own image and likeness.

At this point, it’s too early to know how the law would change college sports in general and golf specifically. Hopefully, the flurry of headlines will spark serious, earnest conversation about fairness and a practical way to support student-athletes – not dismissive claims that “this would ruin” college sports such as golf.

No, it wouldn’t. This is 2019. The world evolves, and so must the NCAA.

Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is a contributing writer to the Northern California Golf Association magazine. E-mail: r.kroichick@comcast.net; Twitter: @ronkroichick