When Northwestern University’s football team tried to unionize in 2014, Roger Chamberlain supported the players’ efforts to get paid. It has been a long time since NCAA athletes could be honestly labeled as amateurs, said the Republican state Senator from Lino Lakes.
But it wasn’t until this year he decided Minnesota’s Legislature should weigh in on the issue. “This is about fairness, it’s about liberty, it’s about [athletes’] freedom, their ability, their right to earn a living and make money off of their efforts,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain, who chairs the Senate Taxes Committee, plans to introduce a bill in the 2020 session that would let student athletes profit from their name and image, including by signing endorsement deals. He’s hardly the only one. Since California passed its landmark measure for athlete compensation in September, lawmakers in more than a dozen states have introduced similar bills or said they expect to next year.
The NCAA has long maintained scholarships and other limited benefits can sustain students and protect what they see as an amateur sports league from crossing the line to professional athletics. But even they have moved on the issue; the organization announced last week it would start considering rule changes to let athletes make money from, as a news release put it, their “name, image and likenesses in a manner consistent with the collegiate mode.”
The changes represent a lightning-quick shift in political winds across the country, fueled by both Republican and Democratic state legislators. Despite hesitant university officials, defying the NCAA over athlete pay might be one of the few emerging issues to draw bipartisan support throughout the country — and in Minnesota.
How the ground shifted under the NCAA
Chamberlain said he was spurred into action this year by California’s bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature unanimously. That measure has garnered national attention and played a role in forcing the NCAA to explore similar rules for the whole country.
The first significant bill for athlete compensation, however, may have come from a Washington state Republican. Drew Stokesbary, a state representative from the suburban city of Auburn, introduced legislation in January that would allow athletes to make money from their name and likeness and hire an agent.
Stokesbary said his free-market beliefs clashed with an NCAA that was acting like a “cartel” by prohibiting students from making money. He also said the organization has inconsistently enforced its model of amateurism. For instance, Stokesbary noted quarterback Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy in football at Oklahoma last year, even though he had signed with Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics and earned a multimillion dollar signing bonus.
At the time, Stokesbary said he tried to find similar proposals elsewhere in the country to pattern his legislation after, but came up empty. “We couldn’t find any example pretty much anywhere,” he said.
Andrew Smalley, a research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state governments across the country, said prior to 2019 “we had not seen a lot of state legislative activity on this topic.”
Then, when he wrote the bill, Stokesbary figured he would need to persuade allies for years to make a dent on the issue, and was planning to start attending NCSL conferences and meeting legislators from other states to “gradually build up pressure that way.”
Yet about a week after writing and introducing his measure, Stokesbary said a California state lawmaker who was interested in the issue called him about the bill. In early February, the California legislation was introduced. “All of a sudden this huge monumental change passed the California Legislature unanimously in a single session,” Stokesbary said. “It just really accelerated the timeline of things.”
Smalley said five states introduced 2020 legislation to let athletes earn money, while lawmakers in another nine states announced they plan to sponsor bills similar to California’s.
Stokesbary said he believes the idea became popular because it attracts both free-market Republicans and Democrats that want to promote racial equity. The majority of athletes in revenue-producing sports are African American he said, while those making money, like athletic departments and NCAA executives, are predominantly white. Plus, more and more people are attuned to how sports and politics intersect, such as the recent controversy over the NBA and Hong Kong protests, Stokesbary added.
California’s bill became law over the objection of the NCAA, which said in a September letter the measure was unconstitutional, would “erase” the distinction between professional and college sports and give California an “unfair recruiting advantage.” The organization instead urged a consistent NCAA-driven solution for the whole country.
In deep-blue Washington, however, Stokesbary’s bill didn’t pass. It ran into opposition from the University of Washington, Washington State University and other colleges. While those schools said they were open to change on a national level, Stokesbary said they ultimately persuaded key House majority Democrats — and Senate minority Republicans — the state should not be the test case for such a groundbreaking change and risk having their sports programs booted from the NCAA.
“If states are laboratories of democracy, we hope you understand that we’d rather not be the lab rat,” Chris Mulick, director of state relations for WSU, told lawmakers in a January hearing.
Does it have a chance in Minnesota?
When asked about Chamberlain’s bill, the University of Minnesota did not respond directly to the measure. But a spokesman emailed MinnPost a statement issued by Athletic Director Mark Coyle last week, after the NCAA announced it would explore allowing athletes to be paid for their image and likeness. Coyle took a similar stance as the Washington schools, saying it would work toward a “national solution” on the issue, but not objecting to the idea of athlete profit.
State Rep. Brad Tabke, a first-term DFLer from Shakopee who has pledged to cosponsor Chamberlain’s measure in Minnesota, also said the U let him know “they would prefer to have a federal solution.” Whether other lawmakers will side with the U will become more clear when the 2020 legislative session begins in February.
Still, Tabke said the proposal has a “fair amount of support” among House DFLers, who have a majority in the chamber, and “has potential to get done.”
Chamberlain and Tabke’s bill is modeled after California’s. But Tabke said it may be changed before it gets introduced, mostly to try and ensure athletes in men’s sports and at big schools in Minnesota aren’t favored over women athletes and smaller schools.
A version of the measure forwarded by Tabke allows athletes at the University of Minnesota schools, the Minnesota State system and private postsecondary schools to hire agents, sign endorsement deals and make money off their name, image and likeness.
It does not address whether student athletes should be considered employees of the schools, or if they should get direct wages and other standard labor protections. A state senator in South Carolina proposed a bill in 2014, for instance, that would allow basketball and football players at the state’s biggest schools to earn a yearly stipend, and another $5,000 each year they can collect after graduation.
Tabke said he believes granting direct wages could professionalize college sports too much, but also characterized his measure as a starting point in the compensation debate. “I’m more of an incremental government kind of person,” he said.
In Minnesota’s Republican-led Senate, Chamberlain said he’s gotten “positive feedback” from other lawmakers and while he hasn’t heard from his party leadership, he doesn’t believe it will be a controversial issue in the GOP. “If it is, I’m going to go back to drinking,” he said. Gov. Tim Walz has also said he’s open to letting college athletes make money from endorsements. A big hurdle may simply be other competing priorities during a busy legislative session, Chamberlain said.
While the U may push for a national solution, Chamberlain said he doesn’t trust the NCAA to act in the best interest of athletes. He said as more states pass legislation, the less the NCAA is likely to file lawsuits, or kick schools out of the organization. “Let them go down that road,” Chamberlain said. “They’re not going to bar California athletes from playing.”