LARAMIE, Wyo. — Wyoming is used to competing against San Diego State and San Jose State.
As members of the Mountain West, the schools routinely clash on fields and courts. Wyoming plays both at least once every season in basketball as part of their conference schedules. The matchups aren’t as frequent in football given Wyoming is part of the Mountain Division and the other two are in the West Division, but SDSU is back on Wyoming’s schedule this season as part of the MW’s rotating schedule that puts three new cross-divisional opponents on the Cowboys’ slate every two years.
Wyoming and SDSU will renew their football series Saturday when the Cowboys travel to Southern California for the teams’ first meeting since 2016. But it may not be much longer until Wyoming finds itself in another competition with the California schools — one that could come with a distinct disadvantage for any school outside of the Golden State’s borders — thanks to a piece of legislation that serves as the first significant step toward college athletes being compensated beyond their scholarships.
California Senate Bill 206 on Monday was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The bill, better known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, makes it legal for student-athletes at California’s NCAA member institutions to profit from their name, image and likeness. Earning money from sponsorships or endorsements is currently forbidden by NCAA bylaws.
The bill — the first of its kind in major college athletics — has been a hot-button topic among advocates that believe student-athletes deserve a cut of the massive funds they generate for their schools and college sports’ governing body (the NCAA surpassed $1 billion in revenue during the 2017 fiscal year, according to USA Today) and opposition in and outside of the NCAA that wants to preserve amateurism.
“It’s going to change college sports for the better by having now the interests finally of the athletes on par with the interests of the institutions,” Newsom said just before signing the bill during an appearance on NBA megastar LeBron James’ HBO show The Shop. “Now we’re rebalancing that power arrangement.”
There are some important provisions in the bill. Student-athletes can’t undermine their school’s current endorsement contracts. At Wyoming, for example, that means a student-athlete would only be able to strike an apparel deal with Adidas since the school has contracted with the company.
Athletes can only be paid through third parties, not their respective institutions or conferences, and must disclose them to their school. The bill also gives female student-athletes the same opportunity as athletes in revenue sports such as men’s basketball and football to monetize a YouTube channel, get paid to host a camp or shoot a commercial with a local car dealership just to name a few examples, largely bypassing Title IX concerns.
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The bill won’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2023, but the realization of what could be coming has drawn plenty of reaction from student-athletes, coaches and administrators nationwide, including those at Wyoming.
“I would be surprised if this whole initiative does not end up in the Supreme Court settled by people far above my pay grade,” Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl said. “I don’t even think it’s a complex issue. I think in NCAA football, there’s some great things we have going on right now. College football is in a good place. I do think we want to be sensitive to the student-athletes and their needs, but they’re here to get an education.”
Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman said he’s not necessarily against the school’s student-athletes being able to profit off their name, image and likeness. The concern Burman has is the unintended consequences he believes could impact an athletic department that generated $44,910,641 in revenue last year, according to USA Today, which was in the bottom half of the Mountain West.
For comparison, Texas brought in more money than any Division I program at $219,402,579. No Power Five program listed in USA Today’s database generated less than $65,117,715 in revenue last year.
“So (Wyoming linebacker) Logan Wilson has a good game last week and he sends out a tweet that his Venmo is open and people start transferring money,” Burman offered as a hypothetical. “And people are going to say, ‘Well what’s wrong with that? He earned it.’ If the donor base and the corporate base wanted to spend their money that way, they have every right to do so. But if at the same time, that meant they were going to spend less with the University of Wyoming whether it be sponsorships, annual giving or whatever and they were funneling a large chunk of their money toward the student-athletes. Maybe this is OK to the general public, but I think you would see at a lot of places eliminations, budget cuts and sport offerings reduced.
“There needs to be some thought, analysis and review of all the unintended consequences and then put together a plan that obviously addresses the issues at the highest level but doesn’t create undue hardship for the vast majority of Division I institutions, which aren’t generating their own money to cover their own budget.”
Burman said much larger markets such as San Diego, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco could create a distinct recruiting advantage for California schools. For example, Burman said, an endorsement deal in Laramie or Casper would pay less to a student-athlete at Wyoming than players at schools in cities with more revenue, so recruits could be more inclined to attend those institutions.
But recruiting isn’t the same for every school, which is why Wyoming men’s basketball coach Allen Edwards said he doesn’t envision any perceived disadvantages becoming a crippling detriment to his program’s recruiting efforts.
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Edwards has a unique perspective. A former student-athlete himself, the Cowboys’ fifth-year coach was part of two national championship teams in the late 1990s at Kentucky, where his teammates included McDonald’s All-Americans Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer and Wayne Turner. The winningest program in the history of college basketball, Kentucky has signed more than 60 McDonald’s All-Americans and countless five-star recruits — neither of which Wyoming has ever done.
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One of Edwards’ former players, Justin James, would’ve almost certainly had opportunities to profit from his name, image and likeness if Wyoming had similar legislation that made it legal. The same goes for former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, the school’s most recognizable athlete before the Buffalo Bills made him the highest-drafted player in school history with the seventh overall pick in last year’s NFL Draft.
James finished his career third on the basketball program’s all-time scoring list before the Sacramento Kings took him in the second round of this year’s NBA Draft, but neither he nor Allen started his time at Wyoming with that kind of buzz. Wyoming was Allen’s lone FBS offer coming out of obscure Reedley (California) College in 2015, and Mississippi State was James’ only other high-major offer before the Florida native signed with the Cowboys.
In other words, Wyoming is rarely signing the caliber of prospect that would have the same monetary value to third parties as soon as they step on campus as some of college athletics’ more lucrative programs. So Edwards isn’t convinced it will be a major factor in the decision for the recruits Wyoming has a realistic chance to sign.
“I think what people are not seeing in this — and this is no disrespect to our level — is if I’m a business owner and I want to promote what I’m selling, Zion makes sense,” Edwards said, referencing former Duke basketball star and No. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson. “We’re not dealing with McDonald’s All-Americans. Yeah, you can say use your likeness, but what are you doing to help better that?”
Edwards said he’d be more worried about how his team might be affected on the court than any money players might make off of it.
“If we’re talking about Laramie, (third parties) are probably mindful to use JJ because he’s JJ. But who else are you going to use?” Edwards said. “And now does that bring dissension within your team because now one guy is getting all these opportunities and others aren’t? And eventually it’s going to be, ‘Well coach, you’re not playing me the right way. I can’t show what I can do.’ Then it becomes more self-centered than it becomes more team-oriented.”
Yet whether it ends up becoming a reality for every player or not, just knowing the possibility is there to get paid while attending college could be enticing enough for more prospective student-athletes to choose schools in California, an essential part of Wyoming’s recruiting footprint. Wyoming started the season with 26 California natives on its football roster, including starting quarterback Sean Chambers, a Kerman native. Junior college transfer Greg Milton III, who’s competing to be Wyoming’s starting point guard this season, hails from Elk Grove, California.
“Right now, the optics look like, ‘Hey, I can get extra money if I’m at San Diego State than if I’m at Wyoming,’” Burman said. “Even though today that’s not true, that’s the optics of it. So yeah, I worry about that.”
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California is still the only state where such a bill is law, but other states are quickly falling in line with the initiative. Colorado, Minnesota, Florida, New York and Illinois are reportedly among those where legislation that would legalize student-athletes profiting from their name, image and likeness has either been introduced or is in the works.
“I think players should get paid, but I feel like with the likeness, I feel like it’s already happening,” Milton said. “Everybody’s getting paid just on the under, but now that it’s coming out, I believe players should get paid.”
Wyoming isn’t one of those states despite the fact having similar legislation in place would help level the playing field for a university where a small market, cold weather and geographical isolation already make it difficult for its athletic programs to consistently attract top-end talent. Bohl and Edwards said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach before deciding if they’d support Wyoming’s politicians pushing for the same kind of legislation in the future.
“I think you’re looking at a whole new dynamic change,” Bohl said. “I think it’s one of these things where somebody has an initiative that they think is a really good idea, they don’t see the full complexities. … I just think there’s not going to be a quick fix on this.”
Said Edwards, “If a fool jumps off the cliff, it doesn’t mean I have to just run and follow him. But if you give me the right information and I’m able to process that information and it makes sense, then I’d be all in for it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t.”
Burman is opposed to the idea of Wyoming drawing up similar legislation in the short term. He opined the NCAA will have to develop an umbrella policy with its member institutions when it comes to the name, image and likeness issue rather than each state coming up with its own regulations “or we are professional sports.”
But with an effective date attached to California’s bill — and other states calling for their bills to go into effect as soon as next year — the clock is ticking on college sports’ governing body.
“They’re going to have to act faster than they’ve ever acted. They have to,” Burman said. “If we continue dragging our feet for a number of years, then more and more states are just going to do this immediately.
“I view California as a shot across the bow. They gave us a three-plus year runway. Now we don’t have three-plus years. We have to do something in the next 12 months and have it in place and rolling, and it’s got to make sense and it’s got to be manageable.”