News & Opinion

College, amateur golf face uncertain future

If California's revolutionary ‘pay to play’ movement for college athletes goes national, golf won’t be the same

"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world” – The Beatles

California is used to being rocked by earthquakes. This time, California rocked back.

The epicenter of this incident is called the Fair Pay To Play Act. It was passed by the state Legislature, signed by the governor and will become California law in 2023.

It is the start of a revolution. In a nutshell, the Fair Pay To Play Act allows collegiate athletes to profit from their names, images or likenesses – the way the NCAA, universities and television networks have been doing for decades to rake in billions of dollars. The law permits college athletes to have agents and receive endorsement money, which would be consistent with how all other university students who aren’t athletes can generate an income.

In other words, the post-revolution college athlete will be a professional, not an amateur.

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Feel that? The earthquake that California started is still rumbling. The world of NCAA athletics is still tumbling, and it’s not going to settle down any time soon. New York, Pennsylvania and Florida are among states already considering similar laws.

It is obvious that college sports and the NCAA will dramatically change in ways we can’t imagine if this revolution continues. This is why some NCAA officials and big-program athletic directors are whining and crying like little babies. Their gravy train has reached the end of the line. Their money machine is in jeopardy.

In its long, money-grubbing history, the NCAA has done next to nothing to help student-athletes. So, I don’t feel bad for those pompous hypocrites. Maybe you see this new law differently. And maybe you booed when Luke Skywalker blew up the Empire’s Death Star, too.

I don’t know what the NCAA’s next version will look like, but I know that fallout from the Fair Pay To Play Act, if it goes national, will give golf a bigger facelift than anything Kris Jenner has had … so far.

The USGA and R&A, golf’s slow-moving governing bodies, will have to rewrite their obsolete rules on amateur golf. Who’s an amateur and who isn’t? Under the Fair Pay To Play Act, the NCAA will have a much different definition than the USGA.

If college athletes are paid to play, that means members of Division I golf teams are ineligible to compete in golf’s buffet of amateur competition, including the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur. Even if college golf athletes don’t receive direct pay, they will be able to score endorsement money and retain agents.

Either way, that makes them professionals under USGA rules. Currently, golf’s amateur-status rules prohibit players from receiving compensation for promoting or selling anything based on their golf skill or name, nor can their name or image be used to advertise a product, even if they are not paid for it.

I see no way to build a bridge over this crevasse. NCAA golfers, unless they sign away their rights under the Fair Pay To Play Act, will have to be designated professionals.

In my wildly unpopular opinion, college golfers who receive scholarship money should be considered professionals, anyway. A college player on a full scholarship gets anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 a year in tuition, room and board, plus thousands more in green fees, apparel, travel expenses and equipment. Let’s round it off to $50k. That’s $200,000 over the course of four years of college.

As an amateur, I am allowed to win no more than $750 worth of prizes in a single tournament (although I am able to accept a big prize, such as a car, if I make a hole-in-one at a tournament). Do you notice anything when you compare the above umbers? One – mine! – has a stark shortage of zeroes. These scholarship guys and gals already are pros compared to we amateurs.

But back to the Fair Pay To Play Act. It is going to be a dilemma for the USGA. That’s probably why its officials are mum on the subject, a newly opened can of worms poised to turn into anacondas.

I tried to get a comment from someone, anyone at the USGA but was referred to the organization’s bland official statement: “While we’re watching what is happening … it’s simply too premature to contemplate all the ways this might affect the golf community. We’re thankful for the working relationship we share with the NCAA and the ability to continue an open dialogue through this process.”

I think what the USGA meant to say was, “Uh-oh! Holy crap!”

The California law brings these questions to mind in regards to golf:

* Will all Division I college golfers automatically be considered professionals?

* If not, where would a line be drawn to define a collegiate pro versus a collegiate amateur? The amount of scholarship money received? The amount of endorsement money?

* Will it become common for a college golfer to be NCAA eligible but not USGA eligible?

* Will golf-equipment companies be interested in paying any Division II or Division III players money to use their equipment?

* If all college athletes are pros, is there any reason to continue the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, an event initially created for “real” amateurs age 25 and older because college players dominated the U.S. Amateur so heavily?

* If collegians are going to be a mix of pros and amateurs, who’s going to keep track of who has endorsement money and an agent and who doesn’t? Who’s going to determine and enforce who’s a pro and who’s an amateur? The NCAA? The USGA? TaylorMade?

* If college players can get endorsement money and have an agent, why not high school golfers, too? Though they would lose their high school and amateur eligibility, they wouldn’t lose NCAA eligibility because college players would be considered pros.

There are no clear-cut answers to these thorny questions. And here’s a thornier one: If college athletes start getting paid in some form in 2023, will that policy be retroactive? Because you know come collegians who competed before 2023 and didn’t cash in will sue for retroactive pay and ask, “Hey, where’s my money?” They might even have a case.

I don’t know how this is going to shake out. Though I believe that athletes deserve compensation, I don’t know a good way to pay it. I do know that handing 25 grand to a 19-year-old isn’t a smart idea. Maybe paying it as health insurance or life insurance might work.

This NCAA fight against the Fair Pay To Play Act is going to be quite a show. The revolution is under way.