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The Pac-12 refuses to lead - will Cal also refuse?

Amateurism is dying. Will the powers that be embrace change or pointlessly fight a lost battle?

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NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No, I’m not surprised. But I am disappointed.

Here’s the deal: The NCAA’s conception of amateurism is collapsing. Dying. In a few years, there will be a brave new world in college sports, and nobody has a really clear idea of what that might look like. You don’t have to like that amateurism is on life support, (though I don’t recommend you cry any tears) but ignoring that reality is like electing to stay on the coast when the national weather service tells you that a hurricane is a day away from landfall.

Why is amateurism dying? Because with each passing year, ‘amateurism’ became a bigger and bigger farce. It’s a joke when teams funnel millions of dollars into fancier facilities because they aren’t allowed to compensate athletes. It’s a joke when a punter has to shut down his youtube channel because he’s ‘profiting off of his likeness.’ It’s a joke when the literal billions of dollars of revenue line the pockets of meaningless administrators rather than the actual players who produce that profit.

California, I’m proud to say, has struck the first legislative blow against the NCAA and amateurism, which means that California institutions are now forced to reckon with this new reality, even if they have a few years to figure it out before the legislation actually take effect. How have those institutions responded?

I’m sure that by now you have seen the Pac-12’s official response. It’s worth a full, mocking response:

The Pac-12 is disappointed in the passage of SB 206 and believes it will have very significant negative consequences for our student-athletes (1) and broader universities in California.

OK, you believe there will be negative consequences. I sure hope that you can articulate specifically what those negative consequences are! Also, note the (1) – I’m tracking how many times the Pac-12 uses the term “student athlete” in this 135 word statement. Spoiler alert: LOTS!

This legislation will lead to the professionalization of college sports and many unintended consequences related to this professionalism,

Those who support the concept of amateurism looooove to point out that athletes are compensated in a variety of ways while also claiming that the sport isn’t professionalized. So which is it? Are athletes compensated with scholarships and cost of attendance stipends, or are college sports not yet professionalized? Clearly this is a professional enterprise with mealy mouthed rules in place to deny athletes the same rights any other private citizen has.

imposes a state law that conflicts with national rules, will blur the lines for how California universities recruit student-athletes (2) and compete nationally,

So how about the NCAA and the Pac-12 exhibit a little goddamn leadership and make changes so that these laws don’t have to be written to give athletes their rights in a way that isn’t done piece meal across the country? You’ve known for a long time this is coming! Do something!

and will likely reduce resources and opportunities for student-athletes in Olympic sports and have a negative disparate impact on female student-athletes (3).

This is a big claim, I’m going to need to see a little proof here. If Evan Weaver signs a sponsorship agreement with Top Dog (“It gives me the fuel I need to make 18 tackles a day!”) I fail to see how that’s taking money away from other sports. I suppose you could argue that certain companies will spend their advertising dollars on individual athletes rather than just the school or conference itself, but Cal/the Pac-12 still entirely controls the media rights that are the true money making engines of college sports, to say nothing of game day receipts.

And frankly, this is patronizing to female athletes who also have their rights taken away. The Olympics finally gave in on amateurism with no obvious negative impacts. Why shouldn’t Cal’s Olympic athletes (female or otherwise) have the right to profit off their likeness if they can do so?

Like, if your point is that male athletes have more sponsorship opportunities than female athletes – well sure, we still live in a patriarchal society, and that’s unfortunate. But unless I’m missing something from the NCAA’s own Title IX explainer, nothing in SB 206 will impact Title IX compliance because any benefits an athlete might receive aren’t coming from the educational institution itself.

Our universities have led important student-athlete (4) reform over the past years,

If by “have led” you mean “were dragged kicking and screaming in response to a variety of lawsuits and public pressure to implement,” then yes, agreed.

but firmly believe all reforms must treat our student-athletes (5) as students pursuing an education, and not as professional athletes.

Um, this bill doesn’t require you to change how you treat athletes. You don’t have to compensate them any differently now. You do understand that, right? This wouldn’t happen to be a bad faith argument trying to protect the profits of an army of mediocre middle managers, would it?

We will work with our universities to determine next steps and ensure continuing support for our student-athletes (6).

I’m not holding my breath. I’m guessing student-athletes (7!) aren’t either.

If this statement is any guide, the Pac-12 isn’t going to be caught dead exercising any leadership on the issue. CGB requested comment from Cal, who provided the following statement from Athletic Director Jim Knowlton:

It is our mission to provide an exceptional student-athlete experience by dedicating resources and support to our Golden Bears, and navigating through the potential changes brought about by SB 206 will be no exception. I will always be in favor of supporting our student-athletes and their well-being, but I firmly believe that it’s crucial that we take a well-informed, thoughtful approach to policy changes around student-athlete name, image and likeness use to ensure that we account for any unintended consequences. For this reform to be fair and significant to all student-athletes, it is important that we have consistent rules among our Division I institutions across the country, and that starts with reform at the national level that is adopted by the NCAA member schools. In that regard, we look forward to receiving the upcoming report from the NCAA working group on the issue of name, image, and likeness, and we appreciate the Governor’s assurance that his office will work with the state legislature and national leaders to ensure that California laws do not have a negative impact on our student-athletes. We look forward to being a part of this important conversation on name, image and likeness and working through the implications of this bill’s passage.

This statement is significantly less combative than the Pac-12 statement above, though Cal is not yet committing to any sort of specific action in response to this new legislation. I hope that Cal eventually, as an institution takes on some kind of proactive leadership that amounts to more than what the Pac-12 has offered, which is more of an old-man-yells-at-cloud type of contribution.

The NCAA is changing, and California schools have been granted a rare opportunity to both do the right thing and also strategically position themselves in whatever new order is created as amateurism dies. Will Cal embrace their chance to be the place where recruits can come for a great education without signing away their own name, or will Cal put their head in the sand and spurn an opportunity to differentiate themselves?