‘Fair Pay to Play’ sparks concern in LV
One issue is the mindset of treating college athletes as businesses
Someday soon, a Lehigh Valley restaurant might name a sandwich after a college athlete and pay him or her a licensing fee. Local sports administrators are bracing for that day as they wonder whether it lands on the path.
At Lehigh University, for instance, Joe Sterrett runs a Division I athletic department with a budget and purpose far different from the nation’s major programs. But like many administrators, he’s engaged in the “Fair Pay to Play” movement that promises sweeping change for college sports. And he has concerns.
“Everybody talks about bigtime college football and basketball in business and economic terms,” Sterrett, Lehigh’s dean of athletics, said. “It’s about revenue, the marketplace for coaches, and that’s not the way we’re set up [at Lehigh] right now. But all of that language and behavior is very much aligned with a for-profit mindset, and I worry that, with that broad brush, they’re going to start treating everybody like businesses.
“I don’t think that’s affordable for the majority of schools classified in Division I now. I don’t think it’s healthy. It draws everybody away from the mission of learning.”
Lehigh Valley sports administrators say the “Fair Pay to Play” bills being proposed across the country, including Pennsylvania, won’t have the large-scale impact here that they will at larger programs nationally. Local schools, which compete at the Division I, II and III levels, recruit different student-athletes, most of whom do not receive athletic aid nor go on to play professionally.
But the issue still hit home last week, when two Pennsylvania representatives announced their plan to introduce a “Fair Pay to Play” bill in the commonwealth that allows college athletes to hire agents and earn endorsement money without losing their eligibility. Reps. Dan Miller and Ed Gainey from Allegheny County said their proposed bill would mirror California’s SB 206, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed last week.
In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers feuded with the NCAA regarding 2012 sanctions against Penn State’s football team, the issue still resonates, said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
“The NCAA has very few friends across partisan dimensions in Pennsylvania, given the prominent place the NCAA has had over the last decade,” Borick said. “Anytime there’s potential policy in which the NCAA is part of, you have to keep that history in mind.”
The California bill, scheduled to take effect in 2023, says that
schools, conferences and organizing bodies (such as the NCAA) cannot prevent college athletes from being compensated for use of what’s known as their name, image and likeness. An NCAA working group studying the matter is scheduled to release a report later this month.
After California passed the bill, numerous states proposed their own bills, citing arguments about economic freedom for college athletes and their limited earning time frames. Under the California law, college athletes can sign endorsement deals, earn money from a YouTube channel or as an influencer and start a business without requiring an NCAA waiver.
At Power 5 programs such as Penn State, where the athletic budget tops $155 million and athletes in many sports frequently are on television, those changes will weigh heavily. The Patriot League, where Lehigh and Lafayette compete, expects a more-limited impact.
Still, commissioner Jennifer Heppel said the conference is “fully engaged” with the issue since it derives much of its revenue from the NCAA basketball contract.
“It’s important that our student-athletes have the same opportunities that other students have,” Heppel said. “In the Patriot League, we really do believe that college athletics derives its legitimacy from within the context of the academic structure. The idea of tying name, image and likeness benefits to education and to the academic structure is important
to us. There’s just not a clear-cut path on how to do that right now.”
One aspect that could benefit Patriot League athletes involves entrepreneurship. Currently, athletes who start a business must apply for an NCAA waiver to maintain their eligibility. A business can’t capitalize on the athlete’s image.
Heppel said that numerous Patriot League athletes have received such waivers. Now, athletes pursuing web development or building phone applications would have the same access as non-athletes. Sterrett called that a victory for athletes.
“That’s appealing and intriguing to a lot of young people,” Sterrett said. “The idea of being innovative and creating something that could go to market is nurtured by our faculty. I suppose there’s always an opportunity for somebody to abuse that, but I don’t see it here. This would give an opportunity that exists for non-athletes to the athletes, which they have not had.”
Capitalizing on their name, image or likeness would be less lucrative for local college athletes than those at high-profile programs, but it’s still an issue. Heppel, who was the associate athletics director for administration at Georgetown University, recalled a restaurant that had named a sandwich after a basketball player. Georgetown had to ask the restaurant to change the name.
Under the California law, and Pennsylvania’s proposed bill, that would be permissible. And the athlete could receive a commission for each sandwich sold.
“If you look at the sponsors at Lehigh and Lafayette, they’re in it for the business,” Heppel said.
“They’re not in it necessarily for that tie to a specific studentathlete, but they can be. So how might that change for the student-athletes, especially in smaller towns where the young men and women are more well known? It’s an interesting conversation.”
In political circles, the conversation has crossed party lines to draw support. California’s bill passed unanimously. The two Pennsylvania representatives who proposed their bill are Democrats, and State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman is “intrigued” with California’s law, a spokesperson told KYW Newsradio.
“If you’re a conservative, you can say, ‘Look, this is the market, let it play out,’ ” Borick said. “And if you’re a liberal, you can say that the economic system has disadvantaged student-athletes and this is a way to empower them. You could clearly align arguments with your ideological markers.”
Corman, who sued the NCAA in 2013 over the $60 million fine imposed on Penn State’s football program stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, is “central to the issue” in Pennsylvania, Borick said. What California started, Corman could help move along in the commonwealth.
“Sports matter, in Pennsylvania they matter a ton, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that sports matters will be at the top of the legislative agenda,” Borick said. “Still, it’s unleashed, and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon.”